BirdNirdFoley Adventures

Science, birds, and conservation.

It’s SuperbOwl time!

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This weekend was the Super Bowl, but since the Saskatchewan Roughriders weren’t involved that’s about all I can tell you about it. I’ve never been a huge sports fan; I like playing hockey, but haven’t watched a game in years. And the only reason I know anything at all about football is because I live in Saskatchewan, and, well, Go Riders!

If you’re on social media, you may have seen the hashtag #SuperBowl used by folks to talk about the game online. But perception is about perspective, and my perspective, along with many others, is birds. So, when we see the #SuperBowl hashtag, we don’t see #SuperBowl. We see #SuperbOwl. And who could disagree with that? Owls are indeed superb birds.

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A Barred Owl preens itself on a trail in the Everglades, FL. Photo credit: Jordan Rutter

Let’s take Snowy Owls, a fitting bird for the current cold snap. Snowy Owls are mostly white with variable amounts of brown mottling, and most people would recognize the species if they saw it. It also has some pop culture fame, since Harry Potter’s owl, Hedwig, was a Snowy Owl. It’s also huge. Weighing in anywhere from 1.5-3 kilograms, it’s North America’s largest owl. In the Arctic, where it breeds and sometimes winters, its main food source is lemmings and it may eat as many as 1,600 of them in a year. That’s astounding. They have large clutches of eggs too. Many raptors only have a couple of eggs – Great Gray Owls, another large owl breeding in the north, typically only have 2-4 eggs in a nest. But Snowy Owls routinely lay 9-10 eggs when food sources are plentiful. The chicks grow fast too. In 40 days they gain almost 2 kilograms. Snowy Owl population estimates have always been high – roughly 300,000 were thought to breed in the Arctic. But then researchers realized that distribution was far from uniform. They redrew the estimates and found that they were about twenty times lower – only 14,000.

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The first Snowy Owl I ever saw, outside Sault Ste. Marie, MI. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

If you live in North America and you’d like to see this extraordinary owl, you’re probably out of luck. The Snowy Owl’s range keeps it out of reach of the average North American’s eyes. It takes a special trip for someone to see a bird that has flown farther south than normal, or an even more exceptional trip to see the bird at the extreme northern latitudes where it is most abundant. But every winter in Saskatchewan, we receive an influx of Snowy Owls right in our backyard. If you’re lucky enough to live in Saskatchewan, all you need to do is take a drive down a grid road in some open country and look for large, white lumps on the top of power poles. Saskatchewan has the highest density of wintering Snowy Owls in North America! Pull over – safely, of course – and stop to enjoy this wonderful bird. But be respectful! If the owl looks like it wants to fly away, you’re too close. Disturbing them causes them to expend energy and increases their chances of colliding with a vehicle, a leading source of mortality. When you’re at an appropriate distance, soak it in. You’re looking at a sight few people are lucky enough to enjoy.

 

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Author: birdnirdfoley

I'm a Stewardship Coordinator for the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Saskatchewan, host of Regina's nature radio show The Prairie Naturalist, and regional coordinator for WildResearch's nightjar survey program. I studied how Common Nighthawks use habitat in Canada's boreal forest and how White-browed Sparrow-weavers in South Africa adjust their nest-building behaviour to climate. I go birding and fishing in my free time. Follow me on twitter @birdnirdfoley to hear updates on the adventures!

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