110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
By Lynn Bowen
posted Nov 11, 2013 - 9:31:12am
With ghostlike white feathers and alert yellow eyes, a beautiful snowy owl peered at me through her cage at a bird sanctuary in Vermont. All owls have special feathers that are serrated at the tips to muffle the sound of their wings flapping when they fly. This magical characteristic adds to the mystery of how they swoop and catch prey with such ease.
Their asymmetrical ears are little openings on the side of their head the size of a pencil eraser. One ear is high, and the other one is low. Both of their ears are fairly close to their eyes but on the sides of the head. With this wonderful feature, their hearing can pinpoint where prey is hiding or running.
Owls’ eyes are fantastic, and can detect mammals under the snow or heavy vegetation, as well as in the distance. Black eyelid edges protect the rather small yellow eyes of the snowy owl. Its small black beak is as strong as its talons.
Snowy owls are beautiful, powerful birds, 20 to 28 inches long, with a 49- to 59-inch wingspan, and a weight of 3.5 to 6.6 pounds. The female is larger than the male. The male adult is mostly white, and the female has brown flecks decorating her white feathers.
Snowy owls’ bulky bodies have dense feathering all over, even on their legs and feet. These nomadic birds usually live in treeless tundra in Alaska, Canada and Eurasia, but stray to other locations when the food supply is scarce.
They have a new mate every year, yet only breed every other year, between May and June. A male may mate with two females. This most likely is to ensure their population doesn’t dwindle.
At breeding time, a female snowy owl makes a bowl scrape nest on a mound of earth on the ground or on a boulder with good visibility. Sometimes snowy owls will occupy an abandoned eagle’s nest. The female lays three to 11 eggs, which hatch after five weeks, and the owlets are cared for by both parents.
These opportunistic hunters eat lemmings, voles, squirrels and other rodents, gulls, grebes, rabbits, fish and ducks, to name a few. “Sit and wait” is their hunting style. They fly close to the ground and swallow their prey whole. They digest only the nutrient-rich portion. Bones, fur and other indigestible parts are compacted into oval pellets that the birds later regurgitate. Amazing!
Recently scientists found that the snowy owls use their white feathers as a reflective beacon that dazzles and wards off rivals. Light reflected from the snow enhances the glare.
Personally, I’m skeptical about this, since it contradicts the camouflage theory, but some experts claim it’s true. I’m just reporting what I read. Perhaps at a glance, this owl looks like a giant snowball to predators such as arctic foxes, dogs, gray wolves and avian predators.
Snowy owls live an average of 9 years in the wild. What a thrill to see one up-close recently!
— Bowen lives in DeLand. Send email to her at email@example.com.
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