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State of the Snowy Owl

Although we’ve covered a lot of material over the last 7 days, our discussion wouldn’t be complete without addressing the state of the Snowy Owl. In response to new population estimates, in 2018 the Snowy Owl was added to the Red List of Threatened Species. Around this same time, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed their status to vulnerable – the last designation before endangered. Population estimates are tricky, especially when it comes to Snowy Owls – their nomadic lifestyle, wide range, and remote Arctic habitat create great challenges for monitoring. But here’s what we can tell you: over 27 years of research, Snowy Owls have declined in our study area. In

ORI Research

Our knowledge of Snowy Owls is expanded through a variety of research methods, including: observation, surveys, satellite tracking, banding, habitat and climate modeling, and population trend analysis. For ORI, all our research starts in the field where we collect various metrics at nests every four days. Hiking for miles across the Arctic tundra is an exhausting and often monotonous task. During a breeding season, sometimes we monitor over 50 nests; sometimes just two that are distantly spaced over our 100-sq mile study site. But long tundra walks are often punctuated with a bit of excitement. Snowy Owls vigorously defend their nests against potential threats including fox, jaegers, gulls,

Toddling around the tundra

At three weeks of age – and before they can fly – Snowy Owl chicks begin leaving the nest. This may sound dangerous for a young owl, but it probably keeps them safer than staying put. The theory is this: if a predator raids the nest, it could easily eat the entire clutch. Once dispersed on the tundra, however, the chicks are well camouflaged and can spread out to hide from predators. While individuals are certainly vulnerable during this time, overall, their survival rates improve. Young Snowy Owls spend about a month toddling around the tundra near their nest before they fly. Weight gain has slowed considerably, but changes happen daily. The plumage around their eyes and beak is turning lig

Growing Up Quickly

During their first week of life, Snowy Owl nestlings triple in weight. Picture a soft, tiny owl about the size of an apple. It would fit right in the palm of your hand. In their second week of life, eyes slowly open, changing from small slits to bright yellow circles. They are transformed from white to gray as their primary down feathers are replaced by their secondary down feathers. Small, nubby quills called feather sheaths appear along the edges of their wings which will soon grow flight feathers. Around week three, chicks weigh in around a pound and start feeling adventurous – they begin running around near the nest. This is called nest departure. Snowy Owl chicks move into independence

Hatching

After incubating her eggs for about 32 days, a female Snowy Owl’s first chick is finally ready to hatch. But just one. You’ll remember that eggs are laid – and hatched – asynchronously. As a result, it will be 1-3 days before the second nestling hatches. Nestlings are tiny – about the size of a tangerine – and covered with soft, white feathers called down. Over the next couple weeks, the white down will be replaced with gray, eyes will open, and growth will be rapid. Because chicks do not hatch at the same time, a Snowy Owl nest may hold all stages of young - from strong, gray-feathered chicks; to tiny, white nestlings; to eggs that still haven’t hatched. For the first couple weeks of life,

Incubation

In late May, females begin to incubate their eggs after digging out a nest bowl on the treeless tundra. During the incubation period, the female remains relatively hidden on the patchy, snow covered ground. But when the snow melts, they become a conspicuous white spot on the brown and green landscape. At the onset of incubation, female Snowy Owls lose the feathers along their lower breast and belly – developing what is called a brood patch. The female’s bare skin allows more direct transfer of heat to the eggs and helps keep them at the perfect temperature for proper development. A female Snowy Owl will lay 3 – 11 white eggs asynchronously – or not at the same time. The incubation period is

Project Beginnings

It was the early 90’s, Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” was crushing Billboard records and Denver Holt was just emerging in the world of owl research. The nonprofit he founded was gaining traction; several research projects were underway; and his dream for a career in owl research was taking shape. He relished the field-work and the Montana species he was immersed in, but something was missing. And he knew just what it was: Snowy Owls. It was a passion ignited in his home state of Massachusetts while working alongside friend and Snowy Owl pioneer –Norman Smith. Assisting Norman at the Boston airport, Holt learned the ropes of Snowy Owl trapping, banding, relocation, and more. He wa

Nesting on the tundra

The Arctic tundra is an expansive and treeless landscape. As such, Snowy Owls have no choice but to make their nests on the ground, often digging a bowl out of ice and snow. Females situate their nests on top of mounds, called high-centered polygons. The mounds can vary in height – from about 8 – 36 inches high – but the nest is usually located on one of the highest mounds in the immediate area. The mound formations are the result of the repeated freeze and thaw of the Arctic tundra and can take centuries to form. The result is a unique landscape of mounds and valleys across the Arctic coast. What’s fascinating is that when Snowy Owls choose their nest-site, the mounds are often not distin

It all comes down to lemmings

Once the Snowy Owl pair is formed, the rest of the nesting process may seem like a foregone conclusion – but it’s not so simple. In fact, there have been a number years when we haven’t located a single Snowy Owl nest across our 100 square mile study site. And the most important determining factor of the Snowy Owl’s breeding success? A small, unassuming rodent called the Brown Lemming. During successful breeding years, up to 95% of a Snowy Owl’s diet is made up of these small mammals. Yet lemming populations fluctuate widely from season to season and, as a result, so do Snowy Owl nesting rates. Snowy Owls are seemingly so dependent on this food source that in low lemming years, the owls may m

Breeding Season Begins

Right now, at our study site near Utqiagvik, AK temperatures are hovering around freezing and the tundra is still snow covered. Although daylight hours are dramatically increasing, it still feels a lot like winter. These aren’t conditions we typically associate with nesting, yet for Snowy Owls, the clock is ticking on the short window of opportunity that the Arctic summer provides. When male Snowy Owls arrive at their coastal breeding grounds, they get right to work. The first order of business is to establish a territory and defend it with vigilance. When another male challenges his boundaries, they will stand facing each other, bow forward, and hoot back and forth in a display designed to

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MEDIA INQUIRIES 

 

We welcome all media inquiries. If you are a credentialed member of the media and wish to set up an interview or request further information, please e-mail liberty@owlresearchinstitute.org.

PHOTO CREDIT

 

We are so grateful to the photographers who capture owls, and our work, in the most amazing ways. They generously share their work with us, and you. Check out the works of some of the photographers whose work is featured on our site! They are incredible talented artists who are committed to wildlife conservation.

Thank you to:

Kurt Lindsay: https://kurtlindsay.smugmug.com/Nebulosa/i-7D8Wh9d

Daniel J Cox: http://naturalexposures.com

Radd Icenoggle: https://www.flickr.com/photos/radley521

Melissa Groo: https://www.melissagroo.com

Ly Dang: https://www.nature2pixels.com

Tom Murphy: https://www.tmurphywild.com/

Deborah Hanson

ABOUT US

 

The ORI is a non-profit, 501(c) 3, tax-exempt organization. We are funded by individual and non-profit  group donations, grants from foundations and corporations, and occasionally agency contracts.

We accept donations of real property. Please consider us in your estate planning.

Donations are tax-deductible to the extent of the law. Our federal tax identification number is 81-0453479.

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liberty@owlresearchinstitute.org

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