Bird of the Week: Snowy Owl

Perhaps there is no other bird that better represents the Arctic wilderness and the season of winter than the enigmatic Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus.
When one thinks of Snowy Owls, one immediately envisions a large ‘snow’ white owl with penetrating yellow eyes. While it is true that Snowy Owls possess extensive white plumage, all degrees of black barring exist with only adult males being pure white, while female/immature birds have extensive black barring.
The Snowy Owl is an inhabitant of the treeless tundra across the northern hemisphere, breeding further north than any other owl, though Short-eared Owls do breed on the tundra as well, but are not permanent residents. It is superbly adapted to this harsh environment with many adults remaining in the Arctic even during the darkness and bitterness of winter.
Though the birds preferred habitat is the tundra, they irruptively, but regularly, migrate south of the boreal forest to habitats that superficially resemble the tundra such as the prairies, beaches, farm fields and even airports of the United States and Canada. While they are known to hunt from the ground, in more southerly locations birds can be found loafing on fence posts, telephone poles, barns and even farm equipment.
Wherever they reside, these owls are excellent hunters, hunting 24-hours a day and specializing in rodents, particularly lemmings in the Arctic, but any number of rodents further south, even resorting to rabbits, hares, and squirrels. Birds that winter near coastlines will hunt ducks, even out in the open ocean, using buoys as hunting platforms! Even though this is the heaviest owl in North America, it is very agile and can even catch small passerines mid-flight!
During the brief Arctic summer, the males perform elaborate courtship displays involving rising high into the air holding prey and then descending to the waiting female where he then lowers his head and fans his tail, presenting her with a token of affection, namely a lemming.
Nesting on the ground, Snowy Owls are known for highly variable clutch sizes with up to 11 eggs. Survival of the chicks is highly dependent on the lemming population during that particular summer.
Whereas most owls are notoriously difficult to observe, photogenic Snowy Owls provide birders with excellent views and stunning photographic opportunities. Please join a future Nature Travel Birding trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where over-wintering densities of Snowy Owl are routinely higher than anywhere else outside of the Arctic!

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