Birds - Snowy Owl
( Originally Published 1904 )
Length—About 2 feet.
Male and Female—White, more or less barred or spotted with dusky; some specimens almost entirely white, the female usually the more heavily barred; the face, throat, and feet being in all birds the whitest parts; legs and feet thickly feathered; iris yellow; bill and claws black; no ear tufts.
Range—" Northern portions of northern hemisphere. In North America breeding wholly north of the United States; in winter migrating south to the middle states, straggling to South Carolina, Texas, California, and Bermuda." A. O. U.
No Arctic explorer has yet penetrated too far north to find the Snowy Owl. Private Long of the Greely expedition, who raised six of these owlets, released them only because food became scarce enough for men during the second winter of hardship, much less for such greedy pets. "They had inordinate appetites," says the commander, " and from the time they were caught, as young owlets, swallowed anything given to them. I remember one bolting whole a sandpiper about half his own size. Over a hundred and fifty skuas (robber gulls) were killed and fed to these owls. It was interesting to note that, although they had never used their wings, the owls flew well." In another volume, General Greely describes the snowy owl's egg as " somewhat larger than, though closely resembling, the white egg of a hen. Sergeant Israel found it very palatable. The male bird showed signs of fight when the egg was taken, while the female looked on from about one hundred yards. The first owl observed was on April 29th, since then one or more have been frequently seen. The nest is a mere hole hollowed out on the summit of a commanding knoll, and furnished with a few scattered feathers, grass, etc."
The lemming, ptarmigan, ducks, and other water-fowl are the snowy owl's main dependence. It is an expert fisher, too, and borne up by the seaweed, it patiently waits for finny prey to swim among the rocks, when, quicker than thought, they are captured. The Arctic hare, though double its own weight, is pounced upon and immediately lifted off its feet lest it use its strong hind legs to escape from its captor. The ptarmigan, on the contrary, is "crushed to earth," but, unlike truth, it may not rise again; for the owl, spreading its great wings to render those of its victim useless, soon ends its struggles. A bird must be a swift flyer, indeed, that can overtake a duck in the air or a hare afoot. The former it strikes down after the manner of the goshawk.
But when food begins to fail at the far north, this hardy owl that is able to endure the most intense cold—since all do not migrate by any means—leaves the moss and lichen-covered tundras, and, joining a band of travellers bound southward, appears in the United States sometimes in considerable numbers, especially in the Atlantic states. A northeasterly storm drives many migrants ashore. Some morning when trees and earth are covered with a snowy mantle that the high winds toss and blow, you may see a wraith, a ghostly apparition, gleaming at you with fiery eyes from the evergreen. Here is a miracle of nature: the snow is alive! Winter incarnate sits before you. Juncos and snow buntings whirl about among the snowflakes in scattered flocks; and the wraith, as silently as any spectre, its downy wings outspread, floats off from its high point of vantage in easy circles, then suddenly swooping, seizes a hapless bird in its talons. In boldness and grace of flight it is far more like a hawk than an owl; and, moreover, it is a diurnal bird of prey, comparatively little of its hunting for mice and other food being done at night.
The Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula caparoch), another northern species that occasionally visits the United States border or beyond, as far as Pennsylvania, in winter, is of medium size (fifteen inches) and without horns. Its upper parts are ashen brown, the head and nape spotted with white, and the back and some wing feathers barred with white; the remarkably long tail has rounded white bars. A dusky spot and below it a white one mark the middle throat, while the sides of the neck and upper breast are streaked with dusky, and the rest of the under parts are barred with dusky and white. The legs and feet are feathered, and the wings when folded fall far short of the end of the tail. Like a hawk in habits, as in appearance, it is nevertheless an owl, though doubtless the connecting link between the families. While it hunts its prey chiefly by daylight, it flies with the ghostlike silence characteristic of its clan, yet with a swiftness, boldness, and dash which would lead the uninitiated to suppose it a true hawk. " When the hunters are shooting grouse," says Dr. Richardson, " this bird is occasionally attracted by the report of a gun, and is often bold enough, on a bird being killed, to pounce down upon it, though it may be unable from its size to carry it off. It is also known to hover around the fires made by the natives at night." Its note is said to be a shrill cry, which is generally uttered while the bird is on the wing.