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 catch the attention of a female.
When a male finds a prospective female, he’ll try to win her over with a courtship flight – flying in an exaggerated, undulating pattern, up and down like waves. After this he might offer her a lemming – the Snowy Owl’s primary prey in the Arctic. He presents it and waits for her response. Sometimes the female accepts the food right away. Other times, he must repeat his offer several times before winning her over, if at all.
Once a male and female solidify their seasonal relationship, the rest of the nesting process may seem like a forgone conclusion – but it’s not so simple. Stay tuned to find out why.
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