For the Birds: Snowy Owls—Have you seen one this year?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Snowy Owls
By Christine Southwick

Snowy Owl at Edmonds by Doug Parrot

Snowy Owls are large, round-headed, mostly white owls (females and juvies have some dark scalloping), with yellow eyes, black beak, and thickly feathered feet. Being tundra natives, these birds perch where they can see in all directions. When Snowy Owls sojourn into Washington, they prefer open shorelines and salt marshes, often resting on beached logs. Usually you need scopes or strong binoculars to see them well. This year there are reports of a couple of Snowy Owls being on the roofs of one-story houses in Ballard. One was recently photographed in Edmonds.

Juvenile Snowy Owl resting on beached log by Larry Engles

Snowy Owls don’t winter in Washington every year— they may not come for five–to-ten year periods. When they do come in heavy numbers, that year is considered an “irruptive year”. If a smaller number of Snowys come the following year, it is called an “echo year”. Basically, these birds fly here for better hunting. The jury is still out as to whether it is due to “an extra low number of lemmings”, or to “too many young birds without good territories to support them”. Most of the Snowy Owls that travel south for food are young males. They will usually stay until mid-March, when they return north.

Snowy Owl yawning by John Riegsecker

These majestic predators mainly live and breed above the 60th parallel. Days stays mostly daylight in the summer, and mostly dark in the winter, so these owls have adapted to hunting both days and nights. While they are in the lower 48 states, they more often hunt at night. Their preferred prey are lemmings, but they are adaptive hunters and will take moles, voles, rats, ducks, ptarmigan, shorebirds, and even fish.

Pair of Snowy Owls by John Riegsecker
Their nesting sites require good visibility, accessible hunting areas, and lack of snow on a mound or boulder. The larger female, lays from five-to-eight eggs (14 in high lemming years) two days apart. The young leave the nest about 25 days after hatching—a month before they can fly. Both parents are fiercely protective, and may drive arctic foxes and wolves away from their territory when intruders are still a half mile from the nest. Since Snowy Owls don’t hunt near their own nests, and keep their nest-zone predator-free, Snow Geese have learned to nest near a Snowy Owl nest to improve the Snowy Goose’s clutch success.

Adult Snowys have few enemies, with habitat loss being their greatest threat. They aren’t used to many people so don’t crowd them—let them hunt and grow strong.

Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager. She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she is sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards.

For previous For the Birds columns, click the link under the Features section on the main webpage.


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