JOURNEY WITH THE SNOWY OWL
© Daniel J. Cox/NaturalExposures.com
For Snowy Owls, the incubation period for a mother bird to sit on her eggs is about one month. Chicks are equipped with a special bump on the front of their beak called an egg tooth. The egg tooth is used to crack and break apart the shell so the chick can emerge.
Remember, eggs are laid asynchronously. The egg that was laid first will be the first to hatch, so it may hatch up to three days before the next one. Every day or so, a new chick, called a nestling, will hatch. When nestlings hatch, they are very small – about the size of a tangerine – and covered with small, soft, white feathers called down. Over the next couple of weeks, their eyes will open, their gray feathers will begin to grow in, and they will grow rapidly. Due to asynchronous hatching, a Snowy Owl nest may hold all stages of young, from strong, gray-feathered chicks, to tiny, white nestlings, to eggs that haven’t hatched yet.
When a mother bird sits on her unhatched eggs, it is called incubation; when she sits on a nest of hatched chicks it is called brooding. For the first couple weeks of life, Snowy Owlets are helpless: they are unable to see, fly, or thermoregulate (maintain their own body temperature). Their mother broods them by keeping them safely under and around her in the nest.
During this time, the male still does all of the hunting, bringing food back to the nest for his mate. The mother owl then tears apart the meat, giving some to each nestling. If food is abundant, each chick will have plenty to eat. However, if prey is scarce, there may not be enough available to feed all of the nestlings. Sometimes older and larger nestlings receive more food, which can result in starvation of the younger chicks. This allows for the surviving chicks to grow up strong and healthy.
© Daniel J. Cox/NaturalExposures.com
Growing Up Quickly
While Snowy Owl parents are busy protecting and feeding, the chicks are busy growing. During their first week of life, the 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 are slowly opening from small slits to 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 flight feather sheaths begin to appear along the edges of their wings. Soon the feathers that allow then to fly will grow from these sheaths.
During week three, growth is rapid. Weighing in at over a pound now, these fluffy gray chicks are ready to get out and start running around!
At the age of three weeks, Snowy Owlets are not ready to fly, but they are ready to leave the nest on foot. This is called nest departure.
Snowy Owlets move into independence more quickly than other large birds of prey, which is probably an adaptation to their Arctic habitat. Summer in the Arctic is very short. Snowy Owl chicks have only about three months to hatch, grow, disperse, learn to fly, and become independent before the first snow in September.
When they leave the nest, young Snowies still have the downy feathers of nestlings, which don’t keep them very warm or dry. Some chicks die in cold weather or rainstorms. Unable to fly, they must hide from predators among tundra grasses and lichens and stay near their parents, who continue to feed and protect them.
Toddling Around the Tundra
Nest departure sounds dangerous for young owls, but it might actually keep them safer than staying in the nest. The theory is that if a bear, Arctic Fox, or other predator raids the nest, it will easily eat the entire clutch of chicks. Once dispersed on the tundra, however, the chicks are well camouflaged and can spread out to hide from predators. Though they are certainly vulnerable to predators at this time, the chances of more chicks surviving an attack becomes greater.
Snowy Owlets spend about a month toddling around the tundra near their nest before they fly. Their weight gain has slowed down, but they continue to change appearance rapidly. The plumage around their eyes and beak is turning lighter, and it’s beginning to look like they are wearing a white mask. They are beginning to grow black and white speckled wing covert feathers, the small feathers that cover the shafts of their wing feathers, and their flight and tail feathers are growing daily.
By week six, the young begin to look much like adults, though they are still heavily speckled with black, and much of their gray downy plumage remains, especially on their heads.
A fledgling is any bird that has left its nest. Once a chick has left the nest, it has fledged. Most songbirds learn to fly within just a few days of fledging. Other birds, like the Snowy Owl, remain flightless for weeks after fledging. It all depends upon how quickly that species grows its flight feathers.
Before Snowy Owl fledglings make their first flight, they spend several days hopping around and flapping their wings before ‘lift-off’ occurs. Each day of practice finds them staying airborne more and more, starting with just a few feet at a time, and gradually working up to longer distances. Although flying is innate, or instinctive, in birds, they still have to practice, just like humans when beginning to walk.
Most Snowy Owl chicks are six to seven weeks old when they make their first real flight. It’s very exciting to see a big Snowy Owl flap its wings and fly off over the tundra for its very first flight!
© Laurie McElvain
By the time the snow flies, Snowy Owl chicks are almost fully independent. Though they may be hanging around in family groups, they are spending more time on their own. At two months, juvenile owls are learning to hunt independently. They’ve spent many weeks on the tundra, watching their parents swoop, chase and gather prey. They are now excellent hunters too. Biologists think that hunting is a skill that owls learn from their parents, as opposed to an instinctive skill, like flying.
At age two months, Snowy Owl youngsters have all of their insulating feathers. They are able to keep themselves warm on those long winter nights. They’ve practiced their flying skills and are now ready to fly long miles to their wintering grounds, whether they travel alone or as a family group.
Most Snowy Owls migrate, leaving their summer breeding grounds to spend their winter farther south. In North America, they have winter range that extends from central Canada across the northern U.S.; although they have been spotted as far south as Florida.
More research is being conducted to understand the specific routes and timings of the Snowy Owl migrations. One way to obtain migration data is to band individual owls; where birds are captured, given a small numbered band on one leg, and released. If another researcher captures the owl, they can tell by the number on the band where that owl has been before.
Another way is through the use of satellite transmitters. One of these tiny devices is strapped to the owl’s body like a backpack. When the owl is released the transmitter allows humans to chart its location through satellites and computers.
The oldest known Snowy Owl in the wild lived to be nine years and five months old, with one living to be over twenty-five years in captivity.
There are many dangers facing animals in the wild, even for strong predators. Snowy Owls that live near humans are exposed to the most dangers. As with many other animals, collisions with vehicles are one of the leading causes of death for Snowy Owls. Like many other birds, they have also been killed colliding with power lines, airplanes, traps and other man-made objects.
Just like their chicks, some adult Snowy Owls starve to death when food sources are low. And, sadly, some have been killed deliberately by humans – found shot and abandoned. Climate change may have a negative impact on the lives of Snowy Owls, as well as other Arctic animals. Thus far, however, the effects of a warmer climate on Snowy Owls is not documented.
The Future of Ukpik
What will the future hold for Ukpik? That depends. Just like all wild animals, Snowy Owls need to find enough food, water, shelter, and space to survive and reproduce. Human development is moving into the habitats where many wild animals live.
Luckily, many people are working hard to save the habitat Snowy Owls need to survive. In Utqiagvik, Alaska, the Inupiat people have set aside large tracts of their land for wildlife conservation to benefit species like Ukpik. In this village, formerly known as Ukpeaġvik, Ukpik has served as a food source, a pet, and an inspiration for adornments and carvings. Ukpik has been an important part of the native people’s lives for centuries.
Snowy Owls have definitely made their way into the hearts of millions of others who admire this incredible raptor for their own, personal reasons.
Modified text from the book Snowy Owls, Whoo Are They?, written by Ansley Watson Ford and Denver W. Holt, illustrated by Jennifer White Bohman.