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, even polar bears are attacked when they get to close. And researchers. Males conduct most of the nest defense, but females will often join in. This can involve vocalizations like barking, screaming, and hooting, or occasional distraction displays. But most often our presence at a nest is met by repeated attacks – targeted swoops and dives performed by the male. And, indeed, all of our researchers have experienced the intense pain of Snowy Owl talons in their back.
But who could blame the owls? We’re the first to acknowledge that wildlife research can be an intrusion on their lives. But we also take great diligence to minimize our disturbance – working hard to get in and out as quickly as possible and paying close attention to potential dangers like predators or adverse weather. And we’re proud to say that our research has not caused a nest to fail, from abandonment, or other. The safety and well-being of the owls is always our top priority.
We believe that the temporary stress we cause is worth the gains to our understanding - increasing our ability to monitor, manage, and protect this iconic Arctic species. Only through long-term research are population trends revealed, or a species’ response to climate change is understood. We help conservation find focus and effectiveness; afterall, how can we help Snowy Owls if we don’t understand their challenges?
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