Our white visitor–the Snowy Owl

The Snowy, or Arctic Owl, is not a native of our part of Northern Ontario but is a fairly regular visitor, about every four years or so.
This is a big bird, as large as the Horned Owl, with a wingspan of five feet or more. The male bird, smaller than the female, is almost pure white while the female has quite a bit of dark brown, a sort of mottling effect.
Look for them in the wide open areas. They will sit on top of a post for hours waiting for some small animal to show itself.
The Snowy Owl breeds in the very far north, and its eggs are laid on the ground. There is one very peculiar thing about their incubation. They start to hatch the eggs as soon as the first one is laid. This means that the owl chicks hatch at different times.
A nest of young Snowy Owls will contain young of different ages and sizes, even as much as 10 days apart.
The major food of this owl is the lemming, which is a small mammal about the size of a meadow mouse, or a bit larger. Lemmings inhabit almost all parts of the Arctic.
The population of these little animals builds up to a tremendous peak every four years or so. At this stage, something triggers them off and they start on their famous migrations. They move in vast numbers, and nothing stops them.
Countless thousands of them march into the sea and are drowned. The Lemming population suddenly crashes to nearly zero.
It is during these years of lemming scarcity that the Arctic Owls find their way far to the south of their normal range. The lemming population builds up again, and crashes once more in about four years. So the great white owls appear in our areas in the same four-year cycle.
At times, they will go far south, to New England and the Midwest. Some years ago, there was a large flight of them in Toronto, where they posed a big problem around the airport.
The soft-looking, fluffy plumage of this bird makes it appear as though it is not very speedy. But that is a misconception. It is quite able to overtake ducks in full flight, which is no mean feat.
In southern areas such as ours, it will subsist on small mammals, such as field or meadow mice. Estimates of its mouse intake range from eight to 15 mice per day, or between 300-400 a month.
The Snowy Owl, Nyctea scandiacae, is not only a native of the Canadian north but is found throughout all of the Arctic areas of the world. It is surely one of the most striking species of owl anywhere.

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