The jury may be out on whether a leopard can change its spots or not, but a Snowy Owl certainly can and will! It used to be believed that the male Snowy is white with little barring and gets whiter with age, and the female has more barring and gets darker with age. But, in reality, Snowies cannot be aged or sexed with certainty. The darkest males and the lightest females are selfsame to the human eye. Also, no two owls are identical, and even throughout an individual’s lifetime, Snowies may choose to increase or decrease their coloration based on the environment and their physiological condition.
The female’s barring serves as a camouflage to help her hide herself and her chicks in the nest, but not in the way that we automatically reason. Animals don’t see colors like humans do. For example, several animals see our black power lines as glowing and flashing bands. We are also not always who they display to or hide from! So their visual appearance is tailored specifically to their needs, keeping in mind their primary ‘ultra-awesome’ predators and prey.
Several of the owl’s prey have UV vision. So while the white plumage of the Snowy may seem to humans as allowing it to camouflage itself against the snow, it is in fact highly UV absorbing, making the owl conspicuous to its prey! To the prey, neither the Snowy Owl’s white plumage nor its dark parts reflect in UV or near UV. In fact its dark parts peak in the near infrared part of the spectrum. So the Snowy Owl appears starkly grey against the white background of the snow. Moreover, Snowies breed in the open tundra, where they can be seen from great distances both in white winter and in colorful summer. They are the largest avian predators on the tundra and can protect themselves from intruders. Having said that, they spend as much time fighting competitors and bullies as it do minding their own business, because every predator in the Arctic is plucky; Pluckiness is a prerequisite to survival in inhospitable terrains (unless you are a lemming, in which case, good luck, and hope the Snowy shines!).
In fact, the males that do all the hunting during the breeding season, reflect significantly more light than the females, so their white color is not an adaptation to camouflage the bird, but is an impairment during hunting! But, this is the sacrifice that the birds make, because pigmentation production costs energy that is better used to minimize energy expenditure during the moult, when all Snowies loose one or two primaries on both wings (the moult intensity is higher for non-breeding Snowies). At no point during the moult do the birds lose their ability to fly.
Because the white of the Snowies is an impediment, it is only the best hunters that can pass on their genes to further generations. In fact, a female might be mighty pleased to know that the male can hunt even without pigmentation!
While their preys have UV vision, Snowy Owls themselves don’t. To Snowies, white is white. On sunny days, they orient themselves toward the sun so that the snow’s albedo enhances their visual display. This is how they broadcast their territorial claims, prey information, and show-off to conspecifics. The lighter Snowies display longer than the darker ones.
Even though Snowies are not UV-sensitive, their vision is one of the most highly developed of any owl, and can track distant objects in all variations of ambient light! Unlike other owls, the Snowy Owls are diurnal (active during the day). Some believe this is the case because they have adapted themselves to the long nights and days in the Arctic! In fact, their multifocal tubular eyes are one of the most ecologically adapted of any bird. The species eyes are roughly 1.5 times more sensitive than those of humans, but with lower limited field view, and increased ability to see in low light levels. Like all owls, the Snowy can turn its head 135 degrees in either direction giving it a total of 270 degrees “field of view”. It can even turn its head almost upside down.
Interestingly enough, the primary reason for the eyes being set at the front of the head is not to give them binocular vision as much as to accommodate large ears. The Snowy Owl is distinct from the other avian predators in taking prey from under the snow. It even prefers to hunt through the snow than over thawed surfaces. Such hunting is clearly done using sound, as much as vision.
And even though their pupils maintain an unchanging diameter of 12mm giving them a small depth of field, they have well-developed rictal bristles around the eyes and beak that help them feel for their newborns, and assess their well-being, or detect the shape and softness of the captured prey.
(This is an uber-long post, because Potapov and Sale's book is fascinating. If you've made it this far, you will enjoy reading the rest of this post. So read on, and do read the book!)
Imagine if you unexpectedly came upon a Polar Bear, an Arctic Fox or a Snowy Owl casually moseying down your street. One might assume it’s also the day when the sun decides to remain under the horizon! But, the sun came out, and a female Snowy Owl, found herself nestled cosily on the ledge of The Washington Post building (fortuitously, a few floors down from the Capital Weather Gang’s workspace) in DC. But sadly, her fate was sealed! She was hit by a bus, and is now being cared for at the zoo.
Birds don’t usually draw the same brouhaha as animals! Hedwig may be more popular than Iorek, but in the human circles, Polar bears outclass Snowies all the time. No one made a fuss about Hedwig being played by male Snowy Owls in the movie because Harry “Daniel Radcliffe” Potter can’t handle a heavy female. The popularity of animals over birds has nothing to do with their beauty, rareness, fearsomeness or intelligence. This is how we have come to size things up. But, this year the Snowies are attracting a deluge of onlookers, because of the unlikely places they are being sighted in.
Snowy Owls are one of very few avian species who have the audacity to wait out the winter season in the Arctic. It is usually the full grown adults wanting to breed that stick around in these unmerciful areas. The Snowies that choose to skip the breeding season, and the young ones who are less equipped to survive up there, fly southward where the weather is less extreme. Still, it nearly never happens that south-flying Snowies fly all the way to the Mid-Atlantic, and as far south as Florida, as we witnessed this year. One curious Snowy even made it all the way to Bermuda!
For years, scientists cerebrated over these on and off massive irruptions, and have not been able to make sense of them. In order to do a systematic study of Snowies, scientists need to understand how the owl’s live in their main domicile, as well as what motivates them to travel to places with extremely different ecologies, especially since they don’t migrate every year but sporadically, and for a limited amount of time. The hypothermic weather in the Arctic makes observing the owls there impracticable. Added to that, Snowies are extremely nomadic even in the Tundra. They not only follow the cyclical nature of lemmings, that are abundant one year and scare another, and move around a lot, but also go after bigger lemmings, and therefore an abundant population of those that breed less! So scientists have been limited to compiling information about the the owls that migrate to the south, where are more easily observable, and have been doing so since the early 19th century!
What they’ve found so far is that Snowies are both individualistic and collectivistic. Every owl follows a different trajectory of living, hunting and breeding, making it difficult to make broad generalizations about the species. At the same time, they also choose to travel in boids (loose groups), so that one’s fate is tied to another’s. It seems as if being a part of a boid to them is a choice and not a given, making boids fundamentally different from flocks.
The magic of the Snowy Owl is not in how they survive in a pitiless landscape, but how they transform themselves physically, and make the impossible possible. But, magicians never reveal their secrets, not even if you put them under a knife. If you saw them in half, they won’t tell you anything at all, and you won’t be able to put them back together, because you are not a magician. I consciously share this analogy to underscore a sad piece of information that I learnt from the Snowy Owl book. Up until the 1940s (and perhaps even later), biologists who wanted to understand the diet of Snowy Owls would cut them open to examine their stomachs’ contents. One particular scientist examined 205 stomachs, meaning 205 Snowy Owls were killed; 78 of them had empty stomachs, which means they were cheated out of life for nothing! This is in spite of the fact that one scientist in the 1930s made popular how owls’ regurgitated pellets could be used to understand their diets, so that owls don’t have to be autopsied to understand their diets! Snowy Owls are one of the most delicate bone digesters in the world. They preserve more bones of prey in their pellets than most other birds and make ‘little’ modification to the bones in their pellets.
Pellet analysis can reveal not only what an Owl ate, but also how many species and the size and weight of each! Moreover, Pellets of owls take as much as 10 years to decompose, because of the cold weather in their chosen habitats, so the information is in tact for a long time! In fact, the Owl too routinely tastes its chicks’ pellets to assess their wellbeing and hunger levels. For instance, the absence of bones in the chicks’ pellets would mean the chicks didn’t get enough food, so the digestion sucked every last calorie from their meal. Fortunately, today, scientists don’t cut open Snowy Owls! They capture, examine, band and release them!
This year Snowies migrated southward is unusually high numbers! This kind of irruption hasn’t been seen in may never happen again (even though a long-term look at irruption patterns point to more and more Snowies migrating over the years!). Over two dozen researchers, including the Pulitzer nominated author Scott Weidensaul have come together to work on Project Snowstorm to understand this anomaly, and other physical and behavioral characteristics of the owl! They are using new methods of tracking the birds, such as solar-powered GPS-GSM transmitters, and also performing DNA and feather analyses, among other things.
The transmitters weigh 40 grams, which is the size of one lemming, and about 1.5-3% of the owl’s weight. This makes me uncomfortable, as owls determine what they eat and what they feed their chicks based on the weight of the hunted prey and their energy budget! The transmitters that are attached to their wings using a backpack harness should make flying inconvenient and cost them some energy on top of their usual expenditure.
That being said, scientists are already recording many differences in hunting strategies and invalidating many commonly held notions about their migratory motivations and their movements. One such myth is that the Snowies are here due to a shortage of lemmings in the Arctic. In fact, the abundance of lemmings in summer, led to a successful breeding season, and the current bumper crop of Snowies!
It has been believed for a few years now, that the mass irruption is the result of complex stochastic processes having to do with the availability of prey, winter snow thickness, but more importantly, the relationship between individual owls in their boids. Snowy Owls tend to travel to wintering grounds and breeding grounds in groups. It’s a loose structure where individuals keep safe distance from each other while also monitoring each others movements to get to places with rich food sources. Sometimes, this strategy works very well, and they hit a lemming bonanza, and pair up and start breeding. But, in some other years, they find themselves in an infertile area deficient in lemmings or alternate prey, but are too weak to move elsewhere and leads to mass deaths!
Snowies' most-preferred urban habitats are airports, because they offer vast open spaces with few trees and limited human access, and noise pollution. The noise factor gives the Snowies an advantage over other owls that use their ears and hunt in the dark close to dawn and dusk! Even though the Snowy Owls are diurnal, in the airports, they become very active when the sun begins to set. Here, they capture everything from tiny insects to large raptors, and even the Great Blue Heron and other Snowy Owls. While some airport owls are very healthy, others, especially the adults are exhausted and underweight.
Some years there are as many as fifty owls in one airport, which makes them all the more susceptible to being hit by planes. FAA recorded over 120,000 wildlife strikes (the vast majority were birds) in a 10-year period, and 11,000 strikes last year alone. Bird strikes have caused up to $700 million a year damage to civilian and military aircraft. At least five snowy owls were hit by planes in the US this winter season! A few States have “shoot-to-kill” orders, but most prefer to trap and relocate them.
But, in the early 1980s, research of 385 owls at Logan Airport revealed that the presence of owls in airports discourage flocking birds from roosting in the area. And attempting to disperse the owls only created a greater risk of a bird strike than just leaving them alone.
I recently watched the Magic of the Snowy Owl, which documents the life of one Snowy Owl pair raising their young in a very bleak part of the Alaska North Slope, where food seems scarce and there is little relief from cold winds, rainstorms and freezing fogs. It’s a story of struggle and triumph with all the deflating and elevating elements of reality-melodrama. There is this sense that you are furtively observing The Addams Family of Snowy Owls. The narrator suggests that everything the family are doing is unusual and never been recorded before; like one kawaii scene of owlets daring to cross the river. It was the first time that this behavior was ever recorded or filmed.
In reality, a lot of what the movie thinks is unusual has in fact been observed many times before. The Snowy Owl book by Eugene Potapov and Richard Sale that I mention a few times in this post, provides both scientific and anecdotal evidence from all over the world to this effect. If you’ve enjoyed the movie, I recommend the book to contemplate the bird’s stunning and peculiar ways and facets.
In a different post, I share insights from the book, and clarify some of what the movie thinks is unusual. But mainly, I intend to share how the owl magically transforms itself physically and does amazing non-birdlike things; such as how it changes its spots, manipulates the sex-ratio of its offspring, and enjoys recreational sex, among other things!
David Attenborough is one of the most consummate storytellers of our time. What makes him endearing are things that make him curious and the lengths he will go to satisfy that curiosity. And his things are in the uncharted hinterlands teeming with invisible and mysterious energies; where everything is fluid and transforming; and where humans are one small blip in a more diversely inhabited world.
And because he gives the air of being the most unlikely person one would find whispering from inside a toxic bat-cave or sitting snug next to a gorilla (even though he may be the first person or the only person to have done a lot of what he’s done); because the technology he uses is always groundbreaking; and because the world he reveals is unfailingly awe-inspiring, you are left both amused and astonished. And so, he goes about fossicking in the boonies and presenting us with many banquets of wonder, and letting us know that there is more wonder than we’d ever dream of wondering.
In this series, which is a mix of memoir and science, he meticulously chronicles sixty years of his adventures in the wild. It serves as an unbeatable testament to one man, and his bid to make the stunning complexity of nature’s superior design known to everyone.
He begins in a time much different from our own; when we were still taken with the boundlessness of nature; and everything was waiting to be discovered or seduced into revealing itself. Collectors hungered to own the rarest birds and beasts from the farthest corners of the world. Wild animal dealers, private and traveling menageries and zoo gardens were ubiquitous all over Britain.
Then, he saw wildlife diminish over time, and succumb to its own lavish generosity and our insatiable appetite for everything it has to offer. Extinction became a reality, and he became one of the many voices for conservation. He spent the next half of his professional life, not collecting, but being a diligent observer, translating the wonders of the natural world into exquisite words and visuals.
When he narrates this story, he paints a vivid picture of a revolution in thought, and displays a sapient inwardness, like a Once-ler reuniting with his inner-Lorax; and we take his wistful rumination, his hopes and questions, and make it our own.
There is something marvelous about the wisdom and knowledge he has amassed over time. He always seems unburdened by the scientific prose or activist rhetoric, while somehow striking the elusive balance between the two and oozing erudition. He embraces the science of scientists and the subjectivity of conservationists as being dogged pursuits towards a common ideal. He presents them as the warps and woofs of the natural world, who work to understand, protect and grow their environments, sometimes without heed to personal consequences.
Naturalists, more than any other kind of science maven, display an exceptional ability to observe! There is nothing purely rational about their line of work. Nothing in their world is mechanistic. No two beasts of the same kind are alike; and the interconnectedness of nature, and the complicated symbiotic relationships between flora, fauna and the natural forces, make the process of revelation labyrinthine. And still, researchers show their tremendous skill in taking in all the sights, smells, sounds, and other sensory information around them, and filtering them through scientific thought processes and making deductions on behavior and their consequences. It is a delicate dance between astute observation and skilful intervention; like rearranging all the pieces in a salad back to their respective whole fruits.
In that sense, Attenborough, is not a naturalist-scientist or naturalist-activist. His job is to passively extend his senses to the natural world and make us see what we wouldn’t see without his help. But, having done this for sixty years, he has the unique privilege of sharing impressions about our world over a long passage of time and constructing implications. And because these implications are not just scientific, but moral and emotional, he serves as a calm light of reason, a new door-opener, who leaves us with a questing belief in the future. His life is evidence of how our triumphs, uncertainties and errors recycle into new hopes and anxieties over time.
One, perhaps bonus benefit of this series is the stories of some remarkable women who put themselves in physical harm's way, as they work intimately with wild animals, in hostile regions full of poachers and angry locals. They have single-handedly saved whole species from extinction. And in them, as in the 87 year old Attenborough, and many other naturalists featured in this series, I find personal inspiration; it is clear that there is nothing one cannot do, and certainly not because of somatic reasons.
The animated video above served as a backdrop for Karen Eve Johnson's play about Maria Sibylla Merian, a European naturalist explorer; and Jacoba, an African slave woman in Suriname who is deeply knowledgeable about the jungles of Suriname. I haven't seen the play, and I am not even sure if it is touring, but the trailer was enough to make me giddy, and imagine all of Merian's splendid botanical artwork in movement.
Today is Maria Sibylla Merian's 366th birthday. A few days ago, I wrote about how her art and scientific explorations changed how we see nature. Getty Museum has a beautiful write-up and slideshow (with commentary) about her work. I particularly like the slideshow because it reveals how a young teenager scooped out insects from the mud and observed where they lived and what they ate, and then rendered the whole choreography of the ecosystem for us to see in delightful and visually articulate paintings.
I mentioned in my earlier post that women at that time were banned from pursuing both art and science; science primarily because it required working with nude bodies and corpses. Moreover, working with insects and reptiles was associated with witchcraft; and Merian was born during the peak years of witch-hunt. But, what I also forgot to mention as far as art is concerned is that, this was also a time when women were categorically forbidden from working with oil paints in most of Europe; and were restricted to watercolors because it was a limiting medium, and was associated with amateur work. Materials were therefore gendered, and informed what each work of art meant from a sociological point of view. Employing it the way Merian did however requires a great deal of mastery and virtuosity, which was clearly a skill she honed over many years of training from a real master, her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, who encouraged her to pursue art.
Merian broke every rule in the book when she became an artist and a scientist, and travelled to places farther than most men did to study insects (e.g.: she learnt from tribal people in the jungles of Surniname, which you can imagine wasn't a place many were familiar with at that time); that too as a middle-aged divorced woman with two young daughters. In spite of having no access to formal scientific education, she brought into being the whole study of ecology that deals with the relationship of organisms with their physical surroundings, and transformed science (especially botany and zoology, and within it entymology, or the study of insects) into the structured and disciplined field that it is today. She elevated the quality of botanical illustrations with her exquisite and accurate three-dimensional artwork. What is also fascinating is that she literally changed the language of science, from Latin to vernacular. The result of this was that she wasn't taken seriously by the scientific community during her time, but unconsciously transformed the rules of scientific writing for later decades.
She inspired her own daughters to become artists, publishers and business women. Although, she was married, she later separated from her husband and lived with her mother and two daughters in Amsterdam, and the four women together set up a botanical art studio, and published several artworks, and art and science books. Unfortunately, many of the books that survive today are heavily-used or damaged copies. What is particularly interesting is that she also took interest in teaching silk embroiderers and cabinet makers how to limn flowers. She exquisitely combined fine art with natural philosophy, scientific knowledge, and commerce.
I have lost count of all her exploits; but what is clear is that she had rule-breaking down to a fine art.
I recommend Kim's Todd's Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, about Merian's life, and her contribution to the metamorphosis of science, an age, and a society.
Here's another slideshow describing her artwork as part of the Royal Collection's Amazing Rare Things. The exhibition was collaborated with David Attenborough, and showcases artists who portrayed natural work with scientific interest from the 15th century onwards. There is also a beautiful coffee table book by the same name.
Here's a youtube video of a lot of her works set to Georg Friedrich Händel's music.
Until the Renaissance period, women were not allowed to become artists. Art was mainly a man's vocation, and in fact, women were rarely even depicted in paintings, except as angels or other divine beings.
But even as some women attempted to enter the 'artist's guild' in the Renaissance period, artists were considered respectable only if they were knowledgeable in mathematics and biological sciences; and women were unequivocally barred from learning biological sciences, since the study of the human body required working with male and female nudes and corpses; and also women working with animals and insects was associated with witchcraft! It was a frustrating conundrum, which did not fully get resolved until the late 19th century, although with each passing decade women inched closer and closer to full freedom: first painting still life, then depicting historical and mythological scenes, and then portraits of draped people (In fact nudes had to wait till the 20th century)! The few women who did manage to somehow break this quandary during the Renaissance were nuns or aristocrats who were able to gyp the system. Needless to say, few were willing to risk everything for a trifling chance to paint!
In the 1600s, a time when both art and science were inaccessible to women, a woman called Maria Sibylla Merian broke every rule in the book, and became one of the greatest naturalists and scientific illustrators of all time! At the age of 13, she was the first person to observe the metamorphosis of a silkworm, and her account of this pre-dated published accounts of scientists by almost ten years! She was also one of the first few scientists to venture out of Europe and travel all the way to Surinam to study insects with the help of local tribes; and eventually became the first to study the relationship between insects and their host plants, which changed the way naturalists thought about symbiosis; and gave birth to a whole branch in science called ecology. Until Merian drew insects with the food they ate, scientists believed that they reproduced spontaneously from decaying matter. Moreover, her aesthetic detail and the stunning quality of her work raised the standards of scientific illustration.
It convinces me that some of the best work in science happens outside of the strict parameters of scientific approaches. Maria's work was uninhibited by predetermined rules, and was a result of her own unfettered curiosity and imagination. You see this holds true even in other areas of Science. Several amateur astronomers even today contribute significantly to the study of astronomy, not only with finding comets and novae, and data collection, but also with inventing telescopic devices.
But even after two hundred fifty years since Maria Sibylla Merian, not all was fine for women artists and scientists. In the Victorian era (late 1800s), Edith Holden showed every sign of greatness, but her vast knowledge of her local ecology went completely unnoticed for fifty years after her death, and seventy years after she wrote The Country Diary and The Nature Notes!
Unlike Maria Sybilla Merian, Edith Holden did not actively pursue her calling as a naturalist. Her nature notes were never meant to be published, although she meant to share them with her students at the girls' school. She was just a young artist, exploring her countryside on her bicycle and discovering nature, admiring everyone and everything around her, while being blissfully unaware of how exceptional she herself was. Her diaries have simple hand-written notes about her everyday adventures arranged by date; interspersed with her exquisite water color paintings of flowers, plants, animals, birds and insects. When you read her notes, you see yourself in Birmingham in the Edwardian Period. 107 years ago, exact to this date, on a dull and grey day, she was watching birds building nests, carrying a bicycle half a mile down a thorny lane to picnic on a fence, and wondering why the white Periwinkles have five petals and the blue ones have four.
And while she painted the scenes of the West Midlands countryside, and illustrated various species in graphic detail, she had to make do with finding recognition only as an artist for children's books, as women were not otherwise taken seriously as proper artists or scientists. But to Merian and Holden, the pursuit of nature was mostly one of curiosity! They were just full of wonder and amazement; You saw that in Merian because all her writings were presented not as facts, but in sentences that began with "perhaps" "maybe" "probably". And Holden shares not only her thoughts about nature, but poetry written by all her favorite poets. Evidently, there was a poem for every season and every 'naturey' thing; and everyone knew their physical surroundings like the palm of their hand! I am not surprised how much nature was a subject of contemplation by poets, but just the level of knowledge about the wonders that seasonal changes brought to their places! But, I mostly wonder what would have become of Maria Sibylla Merian and Edith Holden if they were in fact allowed full freedom to pursue their dreams.
There are very few male and female naturalist writers in this era who are also painters; This was a lot more common up until the Victorian era. Just as women are beginning to experience professional equality today, we are beginning to lose this ability!
Ever since I pre-ordered Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, I have been on a Bernd Heinrich-athon. I feel this uncharacteristic need to finish reading his books that have been staring me in the face for months, before reaching for his new one. The plan is to check each book off from this list after reading it, and share some overarching thoughts when I am done with the whole pile.
A Year in the Maine Woods ✔
The Trees in my Forest ✔
Summer World: A Season of Bounty ✔
Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
The Geese of Beaver Bog
Speaking of Bernd Heinrich-athon, the man also writes a lot about running: humans running, animals running; Apparently, a lot of living species are built for distance. I am steering clear of those for now, and will save them for when I reach for a treadmill!
In the mean time, I present Anna Raff's bird paintings that have been keeping me entertained for over three years. After 576 paintings, I am amazed that she hasn't run out of ideas, and her birds continue to make me laugh.