While I am not overly fond of winter in Indiana, there is one plus side to the cold weather. This is the time of year — if you’re lucky — you may see a snowy owl.
By weight, they are the largest owl in North America, with a smoothly rounded head, a large, bulky body, feathering on the legs and yellow eyes. Females are white with varying amounts of black or gray markings; some females have a salt-and-pepper look. Male owls are mostly all-white.
The males tend to get whiter as they age. Harry Potter’s owl in the movies is a male.
In the summer, they normally live far north of the Arctic Circle, where 24 hours of daylight is the norm. If their prey population is high, they can double or triple their young. In the north, their main food are lemmings; here they will hunt just about any small rodent, rabbits, mice and, if necessary, other birds, including large geese.
If you go looking, they can be found on fence posts, telephone poles, hay bales or any vantage point. Look around open fields or even airport lands, wherever there is open land. Sometimes you can catch them flying close to the ground, mostly in agricultural fields and near airports. They do hunt by day, so they’re easier to find than some other owls. Be careful, they can be confused with the barn owl.
With the loss of a lot of barns, they have shifted to old churches, silos and abandoned buildings. Further decline is caused by the loss of pastures, as these owls do not hunt in fields that have row crops in them.
Normally the females will lay 3 to 11 eggs, they will hatch in 2 to 3 weeks but cannot fly until about 7 weeks old. The parents will feed the chicks for up to 10 weeks. The female sits on the nest while the male hunts and returns to the nest with the food.
One of the members of a photography chat room I belong to reported seeing one near Mt. Comfort a couple of weeks ago, another member from Great Britain mentioned he has seen a couple this year. So, they are out there: if you go hunting them, stay warm and let us know if you’ve seen any.
Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.