Ask Us Anything: Snowy Owl Live Cam
Have a question about Snowy Owls, or something you saw on the Explore.org Snowy Owl Live Cam?
Submit your question here:
Once a week, we'll go through submitted questions and post answers on the Snowy Owl Live cam board, so check back for answers! We'll also post them here so we can all learn together about these amazing birds!
(June 16, 2022) The 2022 Snowy Owl Breeding Season Begins!
(July 5, 2022) Update from Alaska: "It's a tough year on the tundra"
(July 20, 2022) ORI's Snowy Owl Research: Update from Denver Holt July 20, 2022
(July 22, 2022) Snowy Owl nesting cam now live! [& Timeline of the Nest]
(July 25, 2022) Snowy Owl breeding season update 23 July 2022
(July 27, 2022) July 26, 2022- Snowy Owl Nesting Update
(Aug. 1, 2022) Snowy Owl Project: Nest Check Process
A note about the cam:
ORI biologists will cover the live cam or set it on highlights during nest checks to provide a comfortable working environment for our field biologists. Our researchers work swiftly while recording data to minimize disturbance at the nest. Working in front of live viewers at the only live Snowy Owl nest in the world is a high-pressure task and we want to minimize any distractions while our researchers work. We only cover the cam for about 5-10 minutes and leave the area immediately.
To keep you in the loop and inform you about the work we do, field biologists Denver, Solai, and Chloe will be giving updates on the progress of the nest, and will share photos of the chicks/eggs. We plan to share a video documenting and explaining the process of data collection at the nest so that viewers can see what takes place during these nest visits. This way, we can keep you all in the loop about the happenings at the nest and share our research with you all!
Question: Why does the camera sometimes go on highlights?
The camera operates on a solar-powered system, which means that if there is cloudy weather for an extended period of time, the battery can run out of power and the cam feed will show Highlights. Denver addresses this in the July 26, 2022- Snowy Owl Nesting Update video.
Question: Will the camera be covered when you band the chicks?
Yes. The camera will be covered for all nest checks, including days that we are banding. We will continue to post frequent updates and photos from these nest checks and will share information and photos from the banding process as well.
Question: What is the nesting area like for Snowy Owls?
Snowy Owls nest on the ground, on mounds on the tundra. There is not a lot of tall vegetation and the trees, where they do grow, are extremely short. Snowy Owls tend to choose mounds about 3 ft high to nest on, which provide them with a good view of everything around them, so they are able to see any potential predators a long way off. Denver addresses this in the July 26, 2022- Snowy Owl Nesting Update video.
For more information, see this paper, published in Ardea in 2009: Characteristics of Nest Mounds used by Snowy Owls in Barrow, Alaska, with Conservation and Management Implications
Question: What makes up a Snowy Owl territory?
Because Denver has been studying Snowy Owls in this area for over 30 years, he knows where all of the nests in the past have been- and so each year the season starts with him returning to old nesting sites, looking for pairs of owls. In 2022, there are adult Snowy Owls in all of the areas that in the past had nests. Denver addresses this in the July 26, 2022- Snowy Owl Nesting Update video and adds more information in the Snowy Owl Nest Update August 10, 2022- PART 3 video.
Question: Are there any buildings or infrastructure nearby? Why do we sometimes see cars, trucks, and people in the distance behind the nest?
In the distance behind the nest there is a gravel road that leads to a new gravel pit. People often walk along the road, and drive to and from work. Most are very good about staying on the road, and are respectful of the wildlife and do not disrupt the Snowy Owls. Denver addresses this in the July 26, 2022- Snowy Owl Nesting Update video.
Question: What are the little yellow flowers around the nest area?
Arctic Poppy (Papaver radicatum)
Question: How far is the nest from any bodies of water?
There is a lake about 120 meters from the nest behind the camera, and the nest is about 1.5 miles from the Arctic Ocean. Denver addresses this, and talks about how Snowy Owls hunt out over the ocean, in the Snowy Owl Nest Update August 10, 2022- PART 3 video.
Question: Do Snowy Owls return to the same nesting area each year as long as there is enough food in the area?
In general, Snowy Owls don't appear to return to the same nesting location each year, but this is quite challenging to study. Snowy Owls are migratory and nomadic, and may spend breeding and non-breeding seasons in very different places each year. One season Denver and other researchers put satellite transmitters on 3 females from the ORI study area, who then went on to spend subsequent years in Russia and Canada during breeding seasons, and one returned to Utqiaġvik the season after that. These owls travel very long distances, and seem to have a variety of suitable breeding locations throughout the Arctic, so it's hard to say where "home" is... which makes it challenging to answer questions about site fidelity.
Question: What other birds are around?
One of the more common birds you might see on the live cam are Parasitic Jaegers-- they are often seen flying around over the female on the nest, looking for shorebird nests so they can prey upon the chicks and eggs. They might try to eat Snowy Owl eggs if the female is off the nest for too long. A bigger threat, according to Denver, are Glaucous Gulls. Glaucous Gulls are large, and very powerful. Denver addresses this in the July 26, 2022- Snowy Owl Nesting Update video.
Question: Do nearby birds benefit from nesting near Snowy Owls? Answer:
Some data suggests they do. Waterbirds, like geese and ducks, get some protection from Arctic Foxes when they nest near Snowy Owls, as the Snowy Owls are VERY good at defending their nest area from these predators. But, there is also a slight downside to nesting near Snowy Owls- once waterfowl eggs hatch, the chicks could be at risk of being eaten by the owls. Denver addresses this in the July 26, 2022- Snowy Owl Nesting Update video.
Snowy Owl Behavior & Natural History
Question: Does only the female Snowy Owl sit the nest until all eggs hatch and only the male hunts for food, or do the male and female "trade off" nest duty and hunting responsibilities?
The female Snowy Owl is the only parent that incubates and broods the eggs and chicks. During this time, the male will bring food to the female, and she will rip it apart to feed their chicks. The male doesn't usually feed the chicks while they are in the nest. The female will occasionally leave the nest for short stretching and bathroom breaks, and sometimes to feed. She may start hunting near the nest once the chicks get older. Male Snowy Owls don't incubate eggs or brood chicks. While both parents will defend the nest, the males are very attentive and will readily attack predators by flying at them feet-first, talons at the ready.
Where is the male Snowy Owl all day?
He's hunting! As Denver says, you gotta wonder if he takes any sort of break! From our years of observations, it seems that the male Snowy Owl is generally within 500 m of the nest, but that is typically out of sight of the live cam. The male is always hunting and keeping an eye on the nest. Denver addresses this in the July 26, 2022- Snowy Owl Nesting Update video.
Question: Do Snowy Owls mate for life (or until one of the pair dies)?
Nope. Snowy Owls are what we call 'seasonally socially monogamous,' which means that they pair up with one mate for the entire breeding season, but don't establish long-term pair bonds. This makes sense, since they are a highly migratory nomadic species. During the non-breeding season they move around the Arctic region, going where they can find food.
There are a handful of observations over the years (both at our study site and elsewhere in the world) of one male having nests with two females, but the second nests don't usually survive, probably due to the male not being able to supply two nests with food (though there are other contributing factors as well).
Question: What types of vocalizations do Snowy Owls make? Do they ‘hoot?’ Answer:
Snowy Owls, like all other owls, can make a variety of different sounds. As Denver likes to say, male Snowy Owls “bark,” and females rarely do. Female Snowy Owls “scream,” and males rarely do. During nest checks, the researchers often hear ‘barks’ and ‘hoots’ (often a single ‘hooo’). ‘Barks’ seem to be used during nest defense. ‘Hoots’ most commonly come from breeding males, and seem to be used in nest defense, territory defense against other male Snowy Owls, and advertising to females.
For about their first week, Snowy Owl chicks make a soft twitter as their only vocalization (possibly functioning as a begging call). By about 2 weeks of age, they have a long, loud screech that is probably their begging call. Once the Snowy Owl chicks leave the nest, this call probably also helps their parents find them out in the tundra, as they blend in quite well.
The website xeno-canto has some recordings of Snowy Owls from around the world, and one from Utqiagvik: https://xeno-canto.org/species/Bubo-scandiacus
There are also a few sound recordings on the Snowy Owl page on Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds
Listen to Denver imitate a Snowy Owl on ORI's website
You can also hear Denver imitate a number of different owl species in his TEDxBozeman Talk from April 2022
Diet and Hunting
Question: What do Snowy Owls eat?
Lemmings! Lots and lots of brown lemmings! From 1992 to 2016, ORI collected and analyzed 43,689 Snowy Owl pellets during the breeding season and found that 94.6% of the prey remains were Brown Lemmings. 3.1% were Collared Lemmings, 1.3% were unidentified lemmings, and the rest (each less than 1%) were: duck, shorebirds, gull, loon, ptarmigan, raptor, passerine, unknown bird, and fish.
Denver addresses this in the Snowy Owl Nest Update August 10, 2022- Part 2 video.
Question: Since there is no darkness, do Snowy Owls only hunt during certain hours of the day or do they hunt as needed throughout the 24 hrs of daylight?
Snowy Owls will hunt anytime of day, except during severe weather conditions. How often and when they hunt is influenced by a number of factors: how hungry they are, the season, and if they have chicks to feed. Snowy Owls seem to prefer to hunt at dawn and dusk (this is called being 'crepuscular,' or active at dawn/dusk), although during the 24 hours of daylight in the Arctic they seem to be most active during the theoretical night.
Question: At what age do the chicks fledge, and how do they feed themselves once they leave the nest?
At about 21 days of age, the chicks will begin to leave the nest on foot, but will stay near the nest and continue to be fed and looked after by the parents. Around 44-55 days old, the chicks are able to fly, but will stay within the nest territory and are still dependent on the adults for food. It is unknown at what age family groups separate and individuals disperse, but it is believed to be around the onset of migration, at which point individuals will hunt for themselves.
Question: Is each chick fed individually? At what age do chicks begin to swallow prey whole, and at what age do they start regurgitating pellets?
Male Snowy Owls hunt and then cache (or store) and retrieve prey to feed the female on the nest, the chicks once they are 3+ weeks old and have left the nest, or themselves. ORI's observations over the years show that the female shares the prey items among all of the chicks, and the chicks begin swallowing prey whole around 2 weeks old. They probably regurgitate their first pellet around 10 days old (but we don't have data on this). Chicks will rely on their parents for food until the beginning of migration, which is usually in late September or early October.
Question: What sex are the chicks?
UPDATE: As of August 24, 2022- Chicks 1, 2, and 3 are all male. The others have yet to be sexed. Once the chicks are at least 35 days old, then we can tell by looking at the number of spots and bars on their 4th secondary feather (a specific feather on their wing- see pictures below). Denver developed this method after a study where they photographed the wings of 140 older Snowy Owl chicks and also drew blood to run a DNA test in order to confirm each bird’s sex. After carefully studying the different markings on the wing feathers, they eventually realized that males will have spots that don’t touch the rachis (the middle of the feather), or no markings, on the 4th secondary; and females will have bars that do touch the rachis in the middle. They found this method to be 100% accurate. You can read the scientific paper about this method here: Sexing Young Snowy Owls
Mark Wilson also explains this in his recent book about Denver and ORI’s Snowy Owl research, called The Snowy Owl Scientist. It’s a great book, and we highly recommend it for anyone who wants to learn about Snowy Owls. Learn more about the book (and buy a copy!) on ORI’s website: https://www.owlresearchinstitute.org/single-post/the-snowy-owl-scientist
Snowy Owl Nesting Research
Question: How often do you check the nest, and what data are you collecting?
The field crew checks the nest every 3 days, weather permitting. When they visit the nest, they record a number of different observations and data, including: count the number of eggs; figure out the hatching sequence of the Snowy Owl chicks; record the number of prey cached at the nest. Denver addresses this in the July 26, 2022- Snowy Owl Nesting Update video.
Also see: Snowy Owl Project: Nest Check Process video.
Question: During nest checks, are chicks handled to take measurements or other data?
Throughout this 31-year research project, chick development and growth rates have been studied meticulously. In 2016 Denver published a paper on the topic: Mass Growth Rates, Plumage Development, and Related Behaviors of Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) Nestlings. At this point in time, measurements of the chicks are no longer necessary. During our nest checks, we will monitor and document the chicks survival and development, however handling is generally not necessary until they are old enough to be banded.
Question: Do you put color bands on the chicks?
No, we don’t put color bands on owls for any of our research projects. When we band owls of any species, including Snowy Owls, we put small aluminum bands on their legs. Each band has a unique number on it that can be used to identify that individual bird. These bands are issued by the USGS Bird Banding Library, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Snowy Owls take lock-on bands. From the USGS BBL website: “Lock-on bands are specifically designed to stop birds with strong bills like hawks and owls from opening or damaging the band with their strong bill. The lock-on band is used on all medium to large birds of prey other than eagles. The band is like a normal butt-end band with two unequal flanges of metal. The longer flange is folded over the shorter flange, effectively "locking" the band in place. The band is made of relatively soft aluminum and can be removed by the bander, but not by the bird.”
Sometimes researchers will also put color bands on birds in addition to the numbered aluminum band, which allows them to tell individual birds apart by sight without recapturing the birds. This can be a useful way to study birds on their breeding or wintering grounds, but is usually most effective when the birds have bare legs so the color combinations can easily be seen with binoculars or a spotting scope.
In general, color bands wouldn’t be very effective on the owl species we study for a variety of reasons, including that many have feathered legs which can obscure the bands (such as is the case with Snowy Owls), and because most of the owl species we study tend to be hard to approach and spot during the day, we wouldn’t really be able to see the color bands very well anyway.
Read more about what bird banding is on the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center website: What is Bird Banding?
More info on different styles of bands here: About Federal Bird Bands
See this page for pictures of different types of bird bands: Examples of Federal Bird Bands
Question: How big is the study area?
The study area is about 100 square miles. The field crew uses ATVs and rides along an established network of trails and gravel roads to access different areas. There is also a LOT of hiking across the tundra! Denver addresses this in the July 26, 2022- Snowy Owl Nesting Update video.
Question: Are there any other Snowy Owl nests near this one, or in the study area?
Not to our knowledge. The field crew does extensive surveys when they first arrive at the study site in June, and they are always keeping an eye out for new nests, but they have only found this one nest.
For more information about how close Snowy Owls nest to each other, see the write up on pg 11 of the 2021 issue of The Roost, ORI's annual newsletter.
For a map showing the number and location of Snowy Owl nests from 1993-2019, see page 7 of the 2019 issue of The Roost. (Note, the pages are 2-page spreads).
Question: How many Snowy Owl nests on average do you find each year in the study area?
In ORI’s Utqiagvik study area, breeding Snowy Owls have had high and low years. Some years have had 30 to 50 nests, others none. Overall these highs and lows are natural, but stark declines of breeding pairs have been observed.
Denver addresses this in the Snowy Owl Nest Update August 10, 2022- PART 3 video.