Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

Harald Parzer

Male snowy owl. By Michael Gäbler, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

Male snowy owl. By Michael Gäbler, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

Ever since the arrival of Harry Potter, children, teenagers, and even adults (you know who you are!), inquire at pet stores on how to adopt a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). What books and movies forgot to mention is that keeping a snowy owl is not an easy task.

First, snowy owls are adapted to the bitter dry-cold environment of the North American and Eurasian Arctic. You better have a well air conditioned aviary for your new pet! Second, snowy owls are nomads and can mass migrate – quite unpredictably – as far south as Florida and Texas. So, do not leave your aviary open! Thirdly, snowy owls are fierce predators, which require plenty of bird and mammal meat to feed themselves and their young (7-12 small rodents/day). Like other owls, they swallow their prey as a whole, allowing strong stomach juices to digest the flesh, only to regurgitate the remnants as ugly pellets. And who will clean that?

But pretty they are: males develop an almost snow-white plumage, while females are primarily white with some black spots. These owls see the world through mesmerizing yellow eyes, and have a sharp black beak, both of which are important adaptations to their predatory life style. Among the 164 species of owls, Bubo scandiacus is one of the largest, with a wingspan of up to 59 inches (52 inches average) and a weight of up to 6.6 lbs (4 lbs average). Like many raptors, females are usually larger than males, possibly to maximize egg production. As a rare exception among owls (which mostly use either tree cavities or abandoned nests of other species to breed), the snowy owl is building its own nest in the Arctic tundra. Usually, one can find such nests at elevated spots with little vegetation, which this fierce animal uses to defend its 5 – 10 eggs whenever a predator approaches. Be aware!

While snowy owls can be found year round in the Arctic Circle, even during polar nights, some of them may abruptly leave their wintering grounds to the more pleasant South, waiting there to return until the harsh Arctic winter is receding. During such southern vacations, snowy owls also choose the Big Apple as their winter destination. Like so many humans, these owls do not want to miss the comfort of their home, and thus are settling primarily in areas which resemble the Arctic tundra. As such, snowy owls can be found every winter at open areas with little vegetation on beaches, like Rhiis Beach, Floyd Bennett Field, or even JFK airport. While the winter of 2017 has not yet been proven to be an exceptional snow-owly year for NYC, many sighting have been made in 2014, when more than 20 different owls have been confirmed. But watch out - time to clean your binoculars, prepare yourself to see a rare visitor from the North: in January birdwatchers reported a sighting at the tip of Breezy Point, and several sightings of an individual have been made at Sandy Hook in February.

References

Holt, D.W., M. D. Larson, N. Smith, D. L. Evans and D. F. Parmalee. 2015. Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America

Leonard, P. 2014. A Season of Snowy Owls. Living Bird Magazine.

Tuft, D. 2015. Amid Urban Debris, the Snowy Owl Is a Wintertime Ghost. The New York Times.