Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus): Barry Kent MacKay

The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) is found around the circumpolar region, nesting on the tundra north of the treeline. It is one of few bird species found above the arctic circle in winter, but in winter many move south. Some years they do so in large numbers, called an “irruption” and here in North America it becomes possible to see them as far south as the northern tier of the U.S. contiguous forty-eight states.  During one recent irruption I heard reports of small flocks appearing some places, a dozen or more birds in loose assembly.  Most artists show them on their wintering grounds, where they like open areas such as fields, beaches and shorelines, where they often sit on prominent outcroppings of rocks, or on such exposed places as telephone poles, ship masts, piers, or just mounds that provide a good view. I decided to show the bird in a bleak, arctic setting. 

If there is snow on the ground Snowies can be very difficult to spot as their white plumage with dark specks provides good camouflage.  Absent snow, they stand out, although more than once I thought I saw one, only to have it revealed to be an empty white bleach bottle or plastic bag. Most of the birds we see here are young of the year, which are more heavily patterned with dark barring.  They become whiter with age with the smaller, mature males the whitest. My model was one of the whitest birds I could find, although even he had a few flecks of dark brownish-grey. 

These birds predominately eat lemmings and other small rodents, but are among the most powerful of avian predators and have been found to eat their own and other species of owls, hawks and falcons, hares and other prey up to and including the size of a red fox.  When I was in my teens, I was asked to prepare one that had been found dead as a specimen for a school, and when I was finished, I examined the stomach contents and was surprised to the owl had eaten four birds, including a tiny kinglet, and an American Woodcock (whose feet were not yet digested, making identification easy).  I was amazed that such a large bird could take a tiny kinglet. But they even will eat large insects.

They have large clutches, up to about ten or eleven in typical owl fashion and start incubating with the first, so as to have staggered sizes of young.  Mortality is high among the young and it is thought that most of the birds we see in irruption years are young, and often will fail to survive.  Unfortunately, they are tempting targets for some people with guns, often fly into wires or other obstructions or can simply fail to find enough food. Being very photogenic works against their survival when people chase them to get pictures, not realizing that the balance between the energy acquired from prey may not be enough to keep them going if they have to use it fleeing overeager people trying to get closer to them. Technology is helping by providing long lens and digital cameras that preclude the “need” to get ever closer.  Give them room.

The Snowy Owl’s ancestors began to diverge from what evolved into the Great Horned Owl about four million years ago (some Snowies show vestigial ear tufts), adapting to a cold, snow-covered and treeless environment.  While their prey base is huge (they can even catch fish, or dine on carrion) their fate is closely related to that of their main arctic diet, lemmings. There have been significant declines in lemming populations due to climate change, with rain falling on places it was previously unknown. This has led to severe declines in the owls and other predators, so it is not just the iconic Polar Bear that is at long term risk of extinction from climate change.  This painting is on birch panel, in oils and is 36 by 24 inches.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

Purchase, print, product info:

31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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