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GARY SHAW: Labrador’s snowy owl

Walk on the Wild Side
Walk on the Wild Side - SaltWire Network


The snowy owl is typically found in the northern circumpolar regions. Although these majestic and beautiful birds usually make their summer homes north of the 60th parallel, they frequently find their way south to the subarctic and northern regions of the boreal forest, including areas of Labrador.

The snowy owl is at home in Labrador.
The snowy owl is at home in Labrador.

These birds have a coal black beak with yellow eyes with predominately white feathers that make them easily recognizable.

Mature birds will be anywhere from 20 to 28 inches in length with a wing span that regularly reaches and often exceeds 48 inches.

The adult males will be almost pure white with the females and juvenile birds having dark spots throughout their feathers.

They have heavily feathered talon feet that are well adapted to life in the cold Northern climate. The average life span in the wild is about 10 years.

The snowy owl is one of the largest owl species in North America and on average the heaviest specie weigh anywhere from 3.5 to 6.6 pounds.

These owls nest on the tundra at the northern end of their range. They will find a mound or a boulder of appropriate size and scrape out a nest site that is on the ground but has just enough elevation to allow them to have good visibility to detect predators and also have good access and visibility in search of their prey. Gravel bars and abandoned eagle nests are also used by these owls for a nesting site as well.

Breeding begins in the later-half of May and through June. Clutch size is determined by prey availability and can range from three to 11 young. The eggs are laid one at a time, usually on every second day over the course of several days — that is determined by clutch size. Hatching takes place approximately 35 days from laying.

The young are cared for by both parents. Despite different hatching days and significant size difference in the young, there is little sibling conflict between them. Both parents defend the nest and will often have one stay on the nest covering the young while the other one will go to great lengths in dive bombing and distraction displays to draw predators away from the nest.

These owls are visual hunters and spend a good amount of time perched on slightly higher elevations and big rocks to give them maximum visibility of their prey. Once they spot their prey, they lift off into flight and fly in silence. They have very high percentage in their success rate when they pick their prey.

Their diet is a mixed bag of what is available. These owls eat lemmings, mice and other small rodents. Ptarmigan on the tundra are on the menu during their nesting season, favoring juvenile ptarmigan during that time of year. They, like any predators, will take full advantage of every opportunity that presents itself. They will tackle rabbits, adult ptarmigan, young ducks and geese, shoreline birds and young gulls.

Because these owls hunt in the daytime, they provide an opportunity for us to see them much easier than other owl species that are primarily nocturnal hunters.

When you find yourself out in the country in Labrador during the winter months, keep your eyes open for these beautiful and graceful birds. It’s sure worth it when you see them in their natural habitat, another great gift from the wilds of Labrador.

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