Monday, September 19, 2011

Animal Of The Week: the Snowy Owl

The Snowy Owl is one of the largest species of owl and in North America on average is the heaviest owl. In summer Snowy Owls are found in the Arctic tundra of the northernmost stretches of Alaska, Canada and Eurasia. In winter they will migrate south. They have been reported as far south as Texas, Georgia, the American Gulf states, southern Russia, northern China and even the Caribbean.

The thought of living in the Arctic Circle for many of us is a daunting one but the Snowy Owl is well adapted to life in this habitat. The feathers of males are practically all white, while females and young do have dark spots making camouflage easy. Their feathers are also very thick and extend all the way to their talons.

While trees are the chosen nesting place for most birds, these are few and far between in the regions where the Snowy Owl inhabits. They usually build their nest on the ground, preferably on a boulder or mound of dirt. They will sometimes take over abandoned eagle nests. The female will lay 5-14 eggs, one every other around May. They will hatch approximately five weeks later, making them all Geminis and Cancers. Both parents will protect the nest and help raise the young.

Snowy Owls main diet consists of lemmings, mice and other rodents. A Snowy Owl must eat about 7-10 rodents a day and will eat up to 1,600 lemmings a year! Other prey when rodents are in short supply includes hares, muskrats, marmots, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, prairie dogs, rats, moles, ptarmigan, ducks, geese, shorebirds, ring-necked pheasants, grouse, American coots, grebes, gulls, songbirds, and even other raptors, including other owl species. While most owls are nocturnal the Snowy Owl will hunt just as successfully in day light or at night time. They show great patience and will sit and wait for prey. Once their prey is identified they will attack from the ground or air. They also will take fish near the surface of the water by swooping on them.

Once their prey is caught they will eat the entire animal. Snowy Owls like others owl species have developed a special way of dealing with the unwanted parts of the prey they eat. Several hours after an owl eats, the fur, bones, teeth & feathers of its prey are still in the gizzard are compressed into a pellet the same shape as the gizzard. Once formed, the pellet moves up from the gizzard to the proventriculus, where it remains before being regurgitated. Owls can't eat while a fully formed pellet is present, blocking the digestive track. When an Owl is ready to produce a pellet it usually closes its eyes, gets a funny look in its face, doesn't want to fly and, when the pellet is ready to come out, the beak is opened and the pellet simply drops out. Other birds of prey, such as hawks, also produce pellets but the owl’s digestive juices are less acidic than those of other birds of prey, so there is more material present to form a pellet.

If you are ever trying to locate a Snowy Owl, you are unlikely to hear them calling as they tend to remain silent outside of the breeding season. During the breeding season males have a loud, booming "hoo, hoo" given as a territorial advertisement or mating call. Females rarely hoot. Its attack call is a guttural "krufff-guh-guh-guk". When excited it may emit a loud "hooo-uh, hooo-uh, hooo-uh, wuh-wuh-wuh". Other sounds are dog-like barks, rattling cackles, shrieks, hissing, and bill-snapping. Nestlings "cheep" up to 2 weeks of age, then hiss and squeal.

The good news is listed as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Conservation list.

Snowy Owl Medicine
The Snowy Owl uses great patience to hunt and teaches us to do the same. Be patient and know that what you need will come. Also know that when the time comes, you are equipped with what you need to handle the situation, just as the snow owl is adapted to living in the icy climates and hunt and digest their prey. Like all owl they are associated with wisdom and prophecy, having the ability to see the unseen, know the unknown. Snowy Owls seem to have the ability to migrate to places where food is plentiful and foresee famine areas.

Athena is the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, warfare, strength, strategy, female arts, crafts, justice and skill. She is often depicted with an owl on her shoulder or head. It is said the owl would reveal unknown truths, thus ensuring what she spoke was always the truth.

For the Oglala Lakota Indians, (one of the seven subtribes of the Lakota people) the Snowy Owl represents the North and the north wind. They also were admired and respected by the tribe. Warriors that excelled in combat wore a cap of owl feathers to symbolize their bravery.

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