|Back to Home||Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes - February 9, 2012|
Snowy OwlsBy Steve Blight
Photo: Pale Snowy Owl in flight -- likely an adult male.
I remember seeing my very first Snowy Owl. It was in late January and I was standing beside my car squinting through binoculars at a silhouetted indistinct white bump at the far side of a large field. Snowy Owls are regular but uncommon winter visitors to the Ottawa area and my wife and I were trying to track one down. This was indeed a Snowy Owl, but mixed in with the excitement of a first was a sense of disappointment of the bird being so far away and hard to see.
This was not my wife’s first snowy – several years prior to this she was traveling with work colleagues on a long straight Alberta highway when they passed a Snowy Owl perched on a fence post right beside the road. She knew what it was instantly and this special sighting is permanently etched in her memory.
Snowy Owls are northern birds of wide-open spaces that feed primary on small rodents such as lemmings. In winter their diet is a bit more varied, and usually includes a variety of birds and small mammals. They can often be found perched on rocks or other high points near the water’s edge where they can snatch unwary waterfowl, gulls and other birds attracted to open water.
This yellow-eyed, black-billed white bird is easily recognizable. It is 52–71 centimeters (20–28 in) long with a 125–50 centimeters (49–59 in) wingspan. As is the case with most diurnal birds of prey – those that are active during the day – the female is larger and heavier than the male. The average weight of the female is 2.3 kg (5 lbs) compared to 1.8 kg (about 4 lbs) for the male. It is one of the largest species of owl in North America, and is on average the heaviest owl. The adult male is virtually pure white, but females and young birds have some dark scalloping; the young are heavily barred, and dark spotting may even predominate. Its thick plumage, heavily feathered taloned feet, and white colouration render the Snowy Owl well-adapted for life north of the Arctic Circle.
Their reliance on lemmings comes as both a blessing and a serious challenge for these owls. In years when lemmings are plentiful, breeding success is high and plenty of young are fledged. Nests with as many as 12 eggs have been recorded, a huge clutch for a bird of prey. However when lemming populations inevitably crash, owls leave the north in large numbers and wander widely in search of food. Occasionally this leads to good numbers of Snowy Owls settling in for the winter in parts of southern Canada, making bird enthusiasts very happy. Amherst and Wolf Islands near Kingston are often hosts to numbers of Snowy Owls and birders gather from all over to catch a glimpse of this beautiful owl.
Some people may know the Snowy Owl as the provincial bird of Quebec where it is known in French as “le harfang des neiges”. However, the bird is also known to millions of Harry Potter fans worldwide – Harry’s faithful owl Hedwig was a gorgeous Snowy Owl.