A bird for winter: Snowy owls

Bird Treatment and Learning Center (Bird TLC) has ten Ambassador Birds in our education program. We could not release these birds back to the wild due to the severity of their injuries or because they are habituated to or imprinted on humans.

Two of these birds are snowy owls, an iconic bird of the far North. Many of us don't have the opportunity to see these owls because they are found primarily on the Arctic tundra.

Our Ambassador snowy owl, Annik, whose name means "blizzard" in Iñupiaq, came to us from Utgiagvik, one of the coldest places in Alaska. Snowy Owls are honored in Iñupiaq carvings, ceremonial regalia, and their spiritual lives.

Owls like Annik can survive in the Arctic because they are covered, head to toe, in thick feathers. Their feathers even cover their eyes. The weight of these feathers makes snowy owls the heaviest bird in Alaska.

Do snowy owls spend the winter in the Arctic? Yes. And no. Some years, there will be an irruption of snowy owls, with many birds, mostly first-year birds, migrating to southern Canada and the northern Lower 48 of the United States. Other birds, primarily females, spend the winter in Alaska's Arctic.

Snowy owls prey on small mammals, primarily lemmings. An adult snowy can consume three to five lemmings a day. They can locate their prey by sight or sound, even in tall grass or under the snow. With their short, broad wings, these owls can glide at slow speeds while carrying prey heavier than their own weight. Snowys can even hover!

In addition to lemmings, snowy owls hunt squirrels, ptarmigan and shorebirds. These ingenious hunters will even perch on the ice of polynyas (large areas of open water surrounded by ice) far at sea to hunt for sea ducks.

Living in the 24-hour daylight of the Arctic summers means that the eyesight of snowy owls has had to adapt to allow them to see in daylight as well as in the 24-hour darkness of winter.

Even if you haven't seen a snowy owl in Alaska, you've probably seen Hedwig, the snowy owl in the Harry Potter movies. Hedwig's white plumage marks him as a male, like our Ambassador Ghost, who we sometimes endearingly refer to as a marshmallow. It takes six to eight years before a male attains his nearly fully white adult plumage.

Staff and volunteers at Bird TLC provide Ghost and Annik with opportunities to engage in natural behaviors. For instance, they can "hunt" and forage for food that is hidden in boxes, papers, bags, or toys that are scattered around their enclosures.

Bird TLC Ambassador Birds are available for educational programs. Some Ambassadors are available for live programs, while others, like Ghost and Annik, are available for virtual programs. Contact us at information@birdtlc.org for more information.

Laura Atwood is the executive director for the Bird Treatment and Learning Center.

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