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Snowy owl needs more than just magic to survive

Birdwatchers reported higher-than-normal numbers of snowy owls last winter in the United States. For the owl, thatís probably not a good sign. Enlarge photo

Associated Press file photo

Birdwatchers reported higher-than-normal numbers of snowy owls last winter in the United States. For the owl, thatís probably not a good sign.

There is something about the snowy owl that brings chills to the skin and a feeling that magic is possible. Perhaps that is why J.K. Rowling used the snowy owl as Harry Potterís pet. Hedwig is the ultimate pure white symbol of good over evil.

With its gold eyes, silent and majestic flight, and glowing white feathers, it is a creature that haunts the imagination. Snowy owls are even depicted in Paleolithic cave drawings in France, making them the oldest recognizable bird species shown in prehistoric art anywhere in the world.

However, think again before wishing to see a snowy owl in Colorado. In 2012, there were several sightings, and people from all over the country rushed to the Rockies to try and catch a glimpse. But rather than a birderís dream, these owls are foretelling an upset in the balance of nature. Many of the owls sighted in southern migrations have been emaciated and sickly. Some scientists think the farther south a snowy owl is seen, the more ecological disturbance there is in the Arctic, where they call home.

Snowy owls breed in the Arctic tundra of North America, and move farther south into Canada for the winter. Females lay a clutch of three to 11 eggs each year, depending on the availability of food. Their major food source is an Arctic rodent called a lemming. In fact, almost 90 percent of their diet consists of lemmings. Owl nestlings need about two lemmings per day, and a family of owls consumes about 1,500 lemmings during the course of the breeding season. In years where lemmings are scarce, some snowy owls may not breed at all. They supplement the other 10 percent of their diet with snowshoe hares, voles, squirrels and fish, and can even take down a Canada goose.

The snowy owl is about the size of a great horned owl. Only mature males are pure white; the females have black barrings. So, even though the famed Hedwig of Harry Potter was a female, the nine owl actors that played her were males, giving her a solid white visage. Snowy owls get whiter as they get older, so the whiter the owl, the older its age.

As hunters, they fly low to the ground or sit silently in a landscape of snow. Their keen eyesight and hearing allows them to find prey under vegetation or snow cover. These owls are virtually silent. Their only sound, though rarely heard, may be a deep, hoarse hoot by a courting male during breeding season. The owls are usually monogamous and will defend their nests against all threats Ė even wolves.

Snowy owls are considered generally in decline because of their focused dependence on lemmings as a food source and how this affects the food chain. Some scientists believe that with loss of snowy habitat in the Arctic, the lemmingsí food source of certain plants is affected, causing a decrease in lemmings, and therefore a decrease in snowy owls. Because last winter was one in which an inordinate number of snowy owls found their way farther south than expected, hopefully this winter the balance will be restored.

With fewer surviving owls, there may be enough lemmings for all. So, even though we might all yearn to spot a snowy owl this winter, letís hope they stay in the north. We will have to relegate our viewing to the imagination, a trip to the Arctic, or perhaps a rescreening of the Harry Potter movies.

sally@durangonaturestudies.org or 382-9244. Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies.