I recently traveled from Missoula, Montana, to Churchill, Manitoba to participate in Polar Bears International’s Tundra Connections program. It was my first Tundra Buggy® tour to see polar bears. I was just as thrilled to see Arctic fox, Arctic hare, willow ptarmigan, and snow buntings, which are other very cool Arctic animals. However, I was told my favorite Arctic animal, the snowy owl was also seen, but as of writing I have yet to see one. It’s hard to give one species a higher ranking than another, so I‘ll just list the ten reasons I think snowy owls are one of the most fascinating of Arctic animals.
1. They are the most northerly breeding species of owl in the world – in the Arctic tundra.
2. They nest on the ground.
3. They are capable of fierce attacks directed at other animals or people when defending their young.
4. They are capable of killing very large birds and mammals (i.e. fox, eider ducks) but in most cases cannot breed unless small rodents, known as lemmings, are locally very abundant. Indeed, in my study almost 90 percent of 35,000 prey items were lemmings.
5. Their chicks leave the nest when they are three weeks old, and then finish development while wandering and hiding on the tundra. They are still dependent on parents to feed them until they can fly (fledge).
6. After another month with their parents and then they become independent and are forced to survive the winter on their own.
7. Some migrate hundreds of miles south to avoid harsh Arctic winters, while many also spend the entire winter in the long, cold, dark Arctic nights. Some owls will even spend the winter far out on the winter ice near open water to hunt seabirds and ducks. Snowy Owls are also known travel great distances between areas. For example, they may be in Alaska one year and Russian the next.
8. Although dependent on lemmings for breeding, snowy owls switch to a diverse diet during winter, especially those owls that winter along ocean coast lines.
9. It’s believed snowy owl feathers can protect them from extreme low temperatures. Older studies indicate the owls may not become stressed until temperatures drop between 50 to 70 degrees below zero.
10. For reasons not yet known, adult males are almost pure white and females white with dark bars. No other species of owl in the world is so distinctly different in color between the sexes, and we think the males white colors are a sign of overall health (fitness) and females only breed with these older white males. Females on the other hand, may be colored for camouflage on the nest.