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Snowy Owls of the Arctic

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Snowy Owls of the Arctic

Zoology 101
Description of Snowy Owls
Scientific name
Recently changed genus
General size and markings
Differences between males and females
Primary diet and quantity
Diurnal, not nocturnal
Area of hunting ground
Decline of food source
Mates for life
Protection of nesting area
Normal clutch size
Food availability effects on clutch size
How far do they travel for food?
A population decline or local extinction

The snowy owl is a larger raptor type carnivorous bird whose body height is between 20 and 28 inches high. The wingspan of this owl reaches 4.2 to 4.8 feet across and its weight is between 3.5 to 6.5 pounds (“Snowy Owls”, 2012). The genus of this bird has recently been changed from Nyetea Scandiata to Bubo Scandiacus from analyzing their DNA they have found that they are more closely related to the Great Horned Owl which makes them a Bubo ("Snowy Owl," n.d.). The snowy owl is also known by other names such as the Arctic owl or the Great White owl.
Most people know the snowy owl from the Harry Potter movies and the character Hedwig. Many snowy owls look this way. The younger owls are white with darker markings and as they age they lose the dark markings and become almost completely white. Females, on the other hand, do not lose all their dark markings. They may become whiter as they age, but still retain some darker or grayish marks on their plumage (“Snowy Owls”, 2012). They have golden colored eyes, their feet have talons and are covered in feathers, and they have short dark colored bills which are very sharp and strong.
Their diet consists mainly of lemmings and other small rodents. A typical male snowy owl will eat three to five lemmings each day. Snowy owls are nomadic birds and thus will travel a great distance for food when there is a scarcity of lemmings in their preferred area north of 60 degrees latitude in the arctic tundra (“Snowy Owl”, n.d.). There are areas in the coastal region of the northern Yukon that lemmings are rarely found. It is hypothesized it is due to extreme cold and thus the snowy owl does not generally occupy this area due to the lack of food source (Krebs, Reid, Kenney, & Gilbert, 2007-2010).
The snowy owl is different from other owls that we know. This owl is diurnal instead of nocturnal (“Snowy Owl”, 2012). This means that the snowy owl is active both during the day and at night. This makes sense because in the arctic region there are periods of complete light as well as complete dark during all 24 hours. They are a patient hunter and have very good hearing as well as eyesight. This aids them in finding prey that is underneath snow or vegetation. The snowy owl hunts lemmings primarily, which are day dwellers, but will supplement its diet with other small rodents such as rabbits, voles, fish, and other rodents. They will also swallow a lemming whole. Lemming population each year affects snowy owls more than any other lemming predator. When the lemming population is high there is ample food source which in turn will lead to a higher number of snowy owls the next year. This higher number of owls leads to a decline in the food source which forces the owl to find food elsewhere. The winter of 2011-2012 has seen a much larger number of snowy owls much farther south than typical. This is due to an increase in 2008-2009 of the lemming population which allowed the snowy owl population to grow. Some owls were spotted as far south as Tennessee which had not happened since 1987 (“Snowy Owls”, n.d.). This decline in food source is due to climate change which allowed the arctic region to warm causing a decline in local population of snowy owls (Gilg, Sittler, & Hanski, 2009).
Snowy owls tend to be like other owls in that they are monogamous and mate for life. They are fiercely protective of their nests and breeding area. They will go so far as to attack wolves if they believe them to be a threat (“Snowy Owl”, 2012). This extreme protection does not just stop with their own nest. They create an unintentional benefit to dark-bellied brent geese who nest close to snowy owls for the protection of their own nests. The closer these geese place their nests to the snowy owl’s nest the safer they are as well as if their nest is far from the snowy owl nest there is more danger and thus a higher chance of nest abandonment. The more protection these geese have the larger the number and size of their eggs as well (van Kleef, Willems, Volkov, Smeets, Nowak, & Nowak, 2007).
The average clutch (number of eggs) size is between three and eleven depending on the population density of their food source that year. When there is a particularly lean year in food source some owl pairs never mate and do not produce a clutch. Females will incubate the eggs while the male provides food and protection. The eggs are laid only one every other day. The incubation period is about 32 days and the young do not leave the nest until they are about 25 days old. The young do not fly very well until they are about 50 days old. Owl parents continue to feed their young for five weeks after they start to leave the nest (“Snowy Owls”, n.d.).
During years where the population density of lemmings is high snowy owls will have a higher clutch size. This may lead to a lower population density of lemmings in the following years which in turn affect the future clutch sizes. When the lemming population decreases snowy owls must migrate to areas that may provide another food source. Lemming population is directly affected by the heating of the Arctic which has a ripple effect that has already started.
Snowy owls may experience the same kind of near extinction locally that the polar bears have experienced. They are being forced farther south to look for food which decreases their population. This warming is affecting the breeding of collard lemmings which are a primary food source for four Arctic predators but mainly the snowy owl. A reduction in the lemming population has a direct correlation to the reduction and disappearance of the snowy owl by a factor of two (Tucker, 2010).
“The seemingly small change could have disastrous consequences for a number of species that feed on the lemmings, such as snowy if lemmings decline and stop cycling, their predators will either disappear or focus on alternate prey (if any), and in turn the latter will also decline” (Tucker, 2010).

* Works Cited
Krebs, C.J., Reid, D., Kenney, A.J., & Gilbert, S. (2011). Fluctuations in lemming populations in north Yukon, Canada, 2007-2010. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 89(4), 297-306. doi: 10.1139/z11-004

Gilg, O., Sittler, B., & Hanski, I. (2009). Climate change and cyclic predator-prey population dynamics in the high Arctic. Global Change Biology, 15(11), 2634-2652. doi: 10.1111/j. 1365-2486. 2009.01927.x

Snowy Owl. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Snowy Owl. (2012). In National Geographic. Retrieved from

Tucker, P. (2010). “Arctic Species at the Cliff’s Edge”. Futurist. 44(1) 7-8

Van Kleef, H.H., Willems, F., Volkov, A.E., S,eets, J.R., Nowak, D., Nowak, A. (2007). Dark-bellied brent geese Branta b. bernicla breeding near snowy owl Nyctea Scandiaca nests lay more and larger eggs. Journal Of Avian Biology, 38(1), 1-6. doi: 10.1111/j.2007. 0908-8857.03639.x

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