An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Snowy Owl

The Feathered Feet of Northern Owls

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Most owls have feathered legs, but the feet and toes of some owls, especially those living in colder, higher latitudes, are also densely feathered. The feathers keep the feet of these birds warm, allowing them to hunt where snow is on the ground and temperatures are very low. Great Gray Owls (pictured), Snowy Owls and Northern Hawk Owls are all examples of this phenomenon. Owls living in warmer climes, such as Barn Owls, have sparsely feathered feet and toes, and tropical owls have nearly featherless feet. This variation can also be found within a given species that has a range that extends over many degrees of latitude, such as the Barred Owl.

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Modern Technology Reveals Snowy Owl Winter Behavior

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With the arrival of this winter’s first Snowy Owls in New England comes a renewed interest in the winter ecology of these birds of prey. An organization called Project Snowstorm (www.projectsnowstorm.org ) gathers detailed information every 30 seconds on the movement of Snowy Owls that they have outfitted with a backpack harness containing a solar transmitter. These transmitters use the cellular phone network, not a satellite, and when they are out of range of a cell tower, they store information which is transmitted when the bird is back within cell coverage territory – even if it’s years later.

The information that has been gleaned from this modern technology is stunning, and has allowed us to know far more about the behavior of Snowy Owls in winter. Some Snowy Owls stay within a quarter mile of where they are banded; others cover hundreds of miles within a few weeks. Some Snowy Owls spend much of the winter out on the frozen Great Lakes, where they prey on waterfowl they find in the cracks in the ice that open and close repeatedly.   Not only has it been confirmed that Snowy Owls feed heavily on birds in the winter (especially ducks, geese, grebes and gulls), but their use of channel markers and buoys as hunting perches while they seek prey over the open ocean at night has been documented.

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Snowy Owls Headed North

4-21-14 flying snowy 046The record number of Snowy Owls that spent the winter in New England are turning up in all sorts of new locations now that they are on their way back to their breeding grounds on the open tundra and stopping to refuel along the way. Although many were young birds, and won’t breed this year, the adult owls will when they reach the Arctic in a few weeks. First, the males perform aerial and ground displays. After mating, the female selects a nest site. In addition to having a sufficient food supply, the site must be snow-free, not subject to flooding, and command a view of its surroundings. The latter is achieved by making their nest on a hummock, or slightly raised surface of bare ground. The female scrapes a shallow depression in the earth with her claws, twirling around to make a form-fitted hollow. No insulating material is added to this depression – no vegetation, no feather lining. Eggs and nestlings are totally dependent upon the mother’s warmth, transmitted via the large, featherless, pink patch of skin on her belly known as an “incubation patch.” The female alone incubates the eggs and broods the young chicks while the male provides food for his entire family.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.