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 lighter, and it looks like they are wearing a white mask, which we often refer to as their “flight goggles.” They are growing white feathers speckled with dark markings, and their flight and tail feathers are developing rapidly. The beak and talons will be the first things to fully develop.

By week six, they are nearing the size of an adult, although they are heavily speckled with black and much of their gray downy plumage remains, especially on their heads. All Snowy Owls have dark barring on their feathers as juveniles, but females retain at least some of this for their entire lives. Only male Snowy Owls turn completely white – a process that takes about four years and perhaps signals to females that they are of breeding age.

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 in birds, they still have to practice – just like walking in humans.

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 the very first time! For the next few weeks, they will hone the skills needed for independence and the long winter. Most will leave their breeding grounds to spend the winter farther south. In North America, their winter range extends from central Canada across the Northern US, although they have been spotted as far south as Florida.

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