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Mon., March 11, 2013, 12:09 p.m.

Snowy owls to be detailed in owl researcher’s program

Snowy owl, an arctic migrant that visits Washington during winter. (WSU)
Snowy owl, an arctic migrant that visits Washington during winter. (WSU)

WILDLIFE WATCHING -- The life history of the snowy owl will be described in a free program by Denver Holt, founder of the Owl Research Institute, Tuesday (March 12) at the Lutheran Church of the Master, 4800 N. Ramsey Road in Coeur d’Alene, sponsored by Coeur d’Alene Audubon Society.

Read on for good background on this arctic visitors to this region supplied by the Institute and the Audubon Society:


Barrow, Alaska is the most northerly point in the United Sates. It is located on the northern coastal plain and lies over 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It is home to the Inupiat Eskimo people, and the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiaca). Barrow was once called Ukpeagvik, an Inupiat name that roughly translates to - a place where snowy owls are hunted or can be found. Here in Barrow, Ukpik (Snowy Owl) and the Inupiat have had a long history. The adult owls and their eggs have been hunted and gathered for food, while the young have also been raised as pets. The Snowy Owl is also symbolized in ivory carvings, artwork, masks, dance, and other cultural traditions.

In Barrow, the summers are brisk, cool, and moist. Although there are 24 hours of light from mid-May to early August, the daily average temperature is just under 40 degrees. Daily humidity is about 80%, and a daily average wind speed of 12-13 mph. Furthermore, almost 40% of precipitation falls as rain during the summer months. It is in this climate that Snowy Owls breed and raise their families. 

The Snowy Owl is a large owl that breeds on the tundra of the Northern Hemisphere. Although it is one of the largest owl species in the world, the Snowy Owl is best recognized by its’ white plumage. It is the second largest bird of prey in the arctic tundra, surpassed only by the Golden Eagle. During the non-breeding season Snowy Owls migrate and wander throughout Canada, the northern United States, and a few scattered locations at mid-latitudes and the southern states. It is the non-breeding season when this species is most often observed. Once in a while, large Irruption Migrations occur, and hundreds to thousands of Snowy Owls migrate south for reason still unknown.

Adult males can be almost pure white, weigh about 3 pounds and stand 22 –23 inches tall. Indeed, on the breeding grounds, male plumage seems to glow as if a fluorescent white color, and can easily be seen from over one mile. Females on the other hand, are more mottled with a base color of white and dark brown bars and spots on various areas of the body. They are more difficult to locate when nesting on the tundra. They are larger than males and can weigh, 5-6 pounds, and stand about 24-25 inches tall.

Snowy Owls are a ground owl. On the Arctic tundra, they nest on tall mounds that average about 3 feet high. Here they have a commanding view of the surrounding tundra and monitor potential threats to their eggs and young. Only females incubate and care for nestlings, while males provide most food and protection of the females and young. Males and females have been observed to drive Bears, Caribou, Wolves, and people from their nesting areas. Although capable killing animals as large as Arctic Fox and White-fronted Geese, in Barrow, Alaska, Snowy Owls do not breed unless the 2-3 ounce Brown Lemming is abundant. Brown Lemming populations can vary substantially from year to year.

Although bird observations indicate a general north to south migration in winter, recent satellite telemetry studies also show that some owls will stay on the tundra or high latitudes all winter. In fact, a non-traditional east-west migration has recently been observed. In these cases, a few females have moved from Alaska to Russia, back to Alaska and then to Canada having barely moved south for the winters.

Join this slide show and lecture, and learn more about these the white owls of the north.

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Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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