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Snowy owl chicks are ready for winter!

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications

On the left is one of our snowy owlets a few weeks after hatching. On the right, one of those same youngsters now. Photos: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren (L) and Susan Burchardt (R)/Woodland Park Zoo 

Oh what a difference four months can make! This past July, we welcomed a pair of snowy owl chicks to our zoo family—the first hatching of this species at Woodland Park Zoo in nine years. And these wide-eyed youngsters—a brother and sister—are already the same size as their parents! 

Male snowy owl, Dusty, is the father of our four-month old pair. Photo: Susan Burchardt/Woodland Park Zoo

Female, June, is a fierce first-time mama! Photo: Susan Burchardt/Woodland Park Zoo

First-time parents, mom June and dad Dusty were paired under the Snowy Owl Species Survival Plan, which is a cooperative, conservation breeding program to help ensure a healthy, self-sustaining population for at-risk species. They live with their brood in the Northern Trail habitat where they are doing a great job looking after their offspring. Not that their four-month old juveniles need much looking after at this point! Both of them have already molted from their fluffy "baby" plumage and are starting to look like their gorgeous parents. 

Male youngster, Lumi, is only four-months old and is already full grown!  Photo: Susan Burchardt/Woodland Park Zoo

The male owlet is named Lumi, the Estonian word for 'snow'. While he still has quite a few stripey dark markings on his feathers, his adult plumage—which will grow in after his next molt in the spring or summer of 2021—will be much whiter. His sister, named Augusta, has much darker and thicker markings in her feather pattern. In general, males are whiter and with fewer dark patches, but overall there can be quite a bit of variation between individuals.

Augusta is the female four-month old owlet. Photo: Susan Burchardt/Woodland Park Zoo

Owl populations in general are in decline because of habitat loss, introduced disease and poisoning from improperly used rodent poison. Specifically, snowy owls are considered to be a vulnerable species. Whe they come into contact with humans, they can fall victim to fatalities related to flying into utility lines, wire fences, cars, airplanes (at airports) and other human structures. Some owls are even killed by hunters. Changes in the arctic climate may also be a looming threat for this species.

Arctic summers are short, so snowy owl hatchlings must grow up quickly! Here is one of our owlets when it was only weeks old. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

In the wild, snowy owls generally live in the Arctic in open, treeless areas called tundra, so you’d have to visit someplace north of 60° latitude to see them—which for North America means Alaska or parts of Canada. Every few years, there are groups of snowy owls that move farther south than normal, flying into areas where they don’t regularly go—including the Seattle area and other parts of the lower U.S. This is called an “irruption” and it can be triggered during years when there’s not enough food in the owls' normal range to support the number of birds that survived through the previous season.

Though snowy owls can eat voles, arctic hares and smaller birds, but their favorite prey is lemmings. The health of the lemming population is one of the biggest factors tied to irruption years. More lemmings means there is enough food for everyone. But when lemmings are scarce, younger snowy owls that are less experienced hunters will fly south, in search of food. While there have already been a few sightings in our area—including one right across from the zoo, the most recent irruption that brought a significant number of snowy owls as far south as Seattle happened over the winter of 2013-2014.

Every few years a number of snowy owls fly to southern Canada and the northern U.S., including Washington state, in search of food. In 2011, a wild snowy owl was spotted on the roof of a zoo building. Photo: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo

Fast facts about snowy owls

  • The fluffy white snowy owl is the heaviest North American owl and one of the largest in overall size. Males are nearly pure white and the female’s white plumage is highlighted with dark brown bars and spots.
  • The snowy owl prefers open areas for its breeding range, including tundra and grasslands. During winter it seeks treeless habitat to the south including prairies, marshes or shorelines.
  • The arctic-dwelling snowy owl is migratory and nomadic.
  • You can help owls—and birds-of-prey in general—by avoiding the use of pesticides, chemical herbicides, and rodenticides in your yards and gardens. Using these products has an impact on the foods that birds eat—anything ingested by rodents would then be ingested by owls.