The Snowy Owl

MYTHS about nature abound. I remember as a child my father told me such wrongs as "Even if you cut a snake's head off, it won't die until sunset." Other favourites of his were "Cats have nine lives," or "If you cut a worm in two, you simply have two live worms." Myths like these are slowly being replaced by scientific truths. Most people no longer believe the world is flat, or that the world was created only a few thousand years ago. What does this have to do with the snowy owl?

The snowy owl is another creature that has attracted its share of human misperception. Why they appear here in winter has been a subject of considerable debate in the bird-watching world. A sighting would be followed by the folk wisdom that "It must be a bad winter up north." It was believed that the extreme cold of the northern winters drove the snowy owls south.

But as it turns out, sometimes the winter isn't hard in the far north and yet many snowy owls are sighted in the south. At other times, severe winters don't seem to increase the numbers found in our region. Some other explanation had to be found to account for their migrations. During the last twenty years new light has fallen into our understanding of the life on the snowy owl, light that has dispelled previously held ideas. A closer looks reveals some of nature's complexity.

Snowy OwlIn the far north, blueberry flowers bloom in the spring, covering huge expanses of tundra. Running along well-marked trails under the dense blueberry patches are many small rodents, voles, and lemmings, which feed on the abundant berries during summer. They are accumulating body fat to get them through the winter. Soaring over the tundra is the snowy owl, searching for these little brown and grey animals.

Sometimes during the spring when the flowers are blooming, heavy cold rains destroy the blooms, causing few berries to develop. The effects are inevitable reactions in a chain: less berries means fewer rodents means less food the the owls.

The link extends to another source of food for the snowy owls, arctic and snowshoe hares. These populations also fluctuate greatly from year to year, directly resulting in the migration of snowy owls in their endless search for food.

Snowy owls, the males almost pure white, are a splendid spectacle and fascinating for nature lovers to observe. Their large yellow eyes and face show no expression as they swivel their round earless head almost a hundred and eighty degrees to look directly into your eyes. They are fearless and stand their ground.

Cheticamp Island, near the light house, is a popular site to check for the owl because it is a creature that prefers headlands and rocky outcrops near the sea. Strictly a bird of open country, it is practically never seen in a tree; it sits on the ground, on fence posts, or other exposed resting places. Even though the barrens in the interior of Cape Breton resemble the native tundra habitat, the owls will always go where food is the easiest to obtain. The wind in Cheticamp scours away snow cover, making the capture of snowshoe hares and mice easier than it would be high up on the snow-covered plateau of the highlands.

Most of the snowy owls I've seen in Nova Scotia are juvenile or females, recognizable by the many small dark brown or black broken bars on their breasts and wings. On the coldest day of January, I saw one older male sitting on a rocky headland near the southern tip of Brier Island.

Snowy owls are slightly larger than our largest resident, the great horned owl. Like other owls, they won't scavenge dead animals as bald eagles will, and they depend on live food. The six other owls found in Cape Breton make hooting sounds to mark their territory during late winter nights. If a snowy owl hears them, let the smaller owls beware. The snowy owl would just as soon make a midnight snack of them as anything else, and then roost in leisure during the day. However, snowy owls will hunt during daylight whenever they feel a need for lunch, an adaptation to the summers of the far north in which the sun never sets.

*Naturalist, guide, story teller, interpreter for Parks Canada and writer David Lawley is contributing editor, northern Cape Breton, shunpiking magazine. A resident of Margaree Forks, he is the author of A Nature and Hiking Guide to Cape Breton's Cabot Trail (Nimbus Publishing) and Whale Watching in the Maritimes (Nimbus Publishing)

This article originally appeared as part of Wildlife Series in the pages of Partici-Paper, published by the Inverness County Recreation/Tourism Department, edited by Mary Anne Ducharme, who was also for many years a contributing writer, shunpiking magazine.

Related reading
Snowy Owl Nyctea scandiaca (Linnaeus)
Birds of Nova Scotia

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Copyright New Media Services Inc. 2004. The views expressed herein are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of shunpiking magazine or New Media Publications.