The snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) has had its share of publicity over the past few years due to its role in the Harry Potter books and movies. But while correctly portrayed as strong and heroic, these magnificent raptors’ natural habitat is far removed from Hogwarts.
Snowy owls are year-round Arctic dwellers although when prime food source becomes scarce they are sighted in regions as diverse as Bermuda, Pakistan and Britain.
They breed on rocky outcrops or hillocks on the treeless tundra; in May they build their nests using the local plant life. Because of this location they depend on camouflage and guile to survive and will fiercely defend their territory and chicks. Their thick plumage (even their feet are covered with feathers) help them withstand winter temperatures which can plummet to minus 40 degrees Centigrade.
Lemmings form 90 per cent of the snowy owl’s diet. These tiny rodents seem to swing from proliferation to scarcity over a four year period. Scientists have not yet come up with a proven explanation for why this happens, but it is this fluctuation that sometimes causes the owls to migrate further south.
The snowy owl is a "still-hunter", sitting motionless at a suitable vantage point until it spots its prey then accelerating rapidly in for the kill. They hunt equally as well day and night, using their incredible eyesight and hearing. They will also attack weasels, other birds and even Arctic foxes. It is thought that when food is scarce, the adult snowy owl can live off its fat reserve for up to six weeks.
Situated on the ground, the nests of snowy owls are vulnerable to attack by a large number of prey including Arctic foxes, skuas, huskies and, of course, man. Alaskans are permitted to kill snowy owls in unlimited numbers (mainly for food). There is some evidence of an illegal trade in the eyes and feet of the owl as they are considered a delicacy in parts of Asia. They are not, however, considered an endangered species.
The clutch of eggs can vary from year to year depending on the abundance of food. An average clutch consists of five to eight eggs of which around two thirds will hatch and survive. The eggs are laid at intervals and incubated solely by the female with the male initially providing the food when they hatch about 32 days later. The owlets start to fly at about eight weeks but only the male will develop a signature white winter colour. The females seem to retain some colour and markings throughout the seasons.
Wild snowy owl sightings are rare in Britain but there is anecdotal evidence of sightings in Suffolk, London and the Shetland Isles. In September 2002, seven poorly snowy owls were rescued by fishermen in the mid-Atlantic before being resettled in a northern wildlife reserve. You can see a captive snowy owl (named Snowdrop) at The Suffolk Owl Sanctuary.
- Snowy owls have bright yellow eyes.
- In Romanian folklore it is said that if a sinner dies repentant, his soul will fly to heaven as a Snowy owl.
- Unlike many others of their species, Snowy owls do not mate for life.
- Chinese people call the Snowy owl ’bai ye maozi’ (white night cat).
- Due to the physiology of its wings, the Snowy owl flies silently.
- The Snowy owl has strong stomach acid which digests its prey whole. Anything indigestible such as hair or feathers is separated into a pellet and spat out.
- Snowy owls weigh up to 2kg are around 60cm in height and have a wingspan of up to 1.5m.