Of the various facts about snowy owls, the adaptations on which they rely to survive the harsh conditions prevailing in their natural habitat, are perhaps the most fascinating.
Everything is in name!
The snowy owl has earned nicknames like the Ghost owl and Tundra ghost; a mere glimpse of the bird is enough proof why.
As many as 200 species of owls are found on the planet. Right from the hot deserts of Africa and North America to the cold regions of the Arctic, these birds are everywhere; Antarctica being the lone exception. In fact, the freezing, snow-clad regions of the Arctic are home to one of the most popular species of owl, the snowy owl. This particular species is somewhat different from the other members of the owl family, equipped with quite a few peculiar adaptations which help it survive in the Arctic, alongside animals like the Arctic fox and polar bear, which are known for their exceptional adaptation skills.
The snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is native to the snow-clad regions surrounding the North Pole. Also known as the Arctic owl or Great White owl, it is typically characterized by its large yellow eyes and a sharp black bill. Adult males are almost pure white in color, while females have traces of black in their thick plumage. It is one of the largest species of owl, with a length of 20 – 26 inches and a wingspan of 50 – 60 inches. It can weigh anywhere between 4 – 6 lb, though specimen much heavier than this have also been recorded. The natural habitat of this species spans Greenland, Alaska, Scandinavia, Russia, and Canada. Though rare, sightings are reported from the United States as well.
Snowy Owl’s Adaptation Skills
The Arctic region is typically characterized by temperatures as low as −40 °F throughout the year. If any species is to survive in such conditions, it will have to resort to a couple of physical and behavioral adaptations. Quite a few animals, including polar bears, Arctic foxes, and snowy owls, have adapted to the extreme climate of the Arctic. Most of us are familiar with the adaptations of polar bears and Arctic foxes, but what about snowy owls? What adaptations do they have that help them sustain in the extreme conditions of the Arctic?
If diurnal behavior is a behavioral adaptation, light coloration is a physical adaptation. It helps the bird camouflage by blending itself in its snow-clad habitat. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the snowy owl is among the best when it comes to camouflage. The light coloration doesn’t just help the owl to get near its prey, but also helps it to avoid predators, such as Arctic foxes, Arctic wolves, polar bears, etc.
A snowy owl perched on snow, blending perfectly with its surroundings.
The plumage of a snowy owl plays a crucial role in its survival, as it facilitates effective insulation for the bird in extremely cold climate of the tundra biome. The thick plumage is spread all over its body, including its toes, which helps it maintain its body temperature in the range of 95 °F (35 °C) to 104 °F (40 °C) even when the temperature in the surroundings drops to as low as −58 °F (−50 °C).
Even the toes of the snowy owl are covered with feathers.
Barely Visible Tufts
The snowy owl has large, yellow eyes and stiff feathers around them. Usually, in owls, the strategically placed feathers (tufts) reflect the sound waves to the openings of their ears, thus adding to their hearing ability. In snowy owls though, these tufts are barely visible, which is unlike what is usually seen in other species. If experts are to be believed, the fact that these tufts are barely visible makes it easier for the bird to camouflage.
The barely visible tufts of the snowy owl improves its camouflaging abilities.
One of the simplest adaptations of the snowy owl is its diurnal behavior. Unlike most species of owl which are nocturnal, i.e., active at night, the snowy owl is active for the most part of the day. A behavioral adaptation, the diurnal nature of this bird comes as a blessing is disguise in the Arctic region where summers are unusually long.
Sense of Hearing
Other than their amazing eyesight, the snowy owl also has an amazing sense of hearing which helps it detect its prey in dim light or even under snow cover. The ears are placed asymmetrically and the data obtained by them is processed to locate the target. Once the target is located, the snowy owl is on it in one swift move.
A snowy owl about to grab its prey which is beneath the snow.
Serrated Wing Feathers
The snowy owl cannot risk alerting its prey by making any kind of noise when pouncing on it; not even the noise made by flapping of wings. This is where the presence of serrated feathers at the tip of its wings―a physical adaptation―comes handy. These feathers act like suppressors and muffle the noise the bird makes when it flaps its wings, thus allowing it to close in on its prey without alerting it.
The serrated feathers in its wings help the bird keep the noise at bare minimum.
Additionally, the snowy owl’s arsenal comprises sharp claws and an equally sharp beak. The former helps it grab its prey even when it is in flight, or beneath snow or vegetation, while the latter helps it tear its prey when feeding. And then there are some behavioral adaptations which are common to species found in cold regions, such as reducing activity to minimize energy requirements, eating a lot to match energy requirements, and opportunistic feeding. Interestingly, a single snowy owl eats 8 – 12 lemmings a day.
The snowy owl is one of the most important members of the tundra food chain. It plays a crucial role in curbing the growth of rodents when it migrates to the south in winter. Though the bird is found in abundance today, experts are afraid that its use in clinical research will affect its population in the near future. With its magnificent appearance and graceful flight, the snowy owl is a delight for bird-watching enthusiasts the world over. Losing it to something commercial like clinical research would be a great loss indeed.