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!
September 2013 Filed in: Films
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass) trilogy speaks of a multiverse with many earths parallel to each other. In some earths, people’s souls live inside their bodies. In others, they walk beside them as animals spirits called Daemons. Flowing through all the worlds and connecting people to their souls is Dust. Dust is the living essence of everything. It confers wisdom on all that it settles on. And while it is invisible to most, there are some who can see Dust and identify other sentient creatures with its help! On our earth, we call these people Birders.
One will find Birders in Central Park, a haven in the heart of the city, where two hundred and eighty species of birds visit every year. Some birds and their birders visit the park in every season, but most others visit it in Spring in Fall, when the leaves on trees are their vibrant best. When dawn breaks, millions of birds fly past Manhattan and a few thousand drop down from the sky for a morning snack. If you happen to walk in Central Park on such a Spring morning, you might find at least a hundred different bird species, and just as many birders perambulating in the park. Time has different meanings for all of them. Time is the changes to the foliage, it is the migration of birds, their travel and feeding schedules; it stand still for one, crawls for another, flutters for the third, and zips for the fourth...
The birders believe these birds are their souls. They say when they are not birding, they are missing out on something in an “almost bodily way”. It is as if they are part of the flock and need to be out there with them. It’s a deep impulse that presents itself as an addiction. “That sense of anxiousness, impatience, unease, that can only be stilled by getting over to the park, getting a binoculars and seeing the first warbler of the morning.” You could say they use the binoculars to look into their souls, and to look within themselves and feed their insides. Sometimes they use bird feeders, which seems to me the more direct approach.
Some birders seem to think the binoculars makes them defenseless, because they are looking at something that nobody else is looking at. They seem to think their souls are less corporeal to others; although, there is no evidence to support that.
They also seem to think the birds are more cooperative in Central Park than anywhere else. Lloyd Spitalnik says that one might find a yellow-throated warbler sixty to eighty feet away from a human at a breeding ground. But in Central Park, she might get within three of four feet of a birder. Conceivably (no pun-intended), breeding grounds are like restrooms, necessitating privacy. They are off limits even if a bird builds its nest at the Shakespeare Delacorte Theatre, on Juliet’s chest with Romeo looking down at it; or on the ledge of a fancy fifth avenue apartment building.
But, in Central Park, they seem manifestly metaphysically connected and can't seem to distance themselves from their humans for too much or too long. Birds and birders are awake and asleep at the same time (except from the birds of witches and shamans that remain awake even when their humans sleep and can fly five thousand miles in the pitch dark of the night away from their humans). Sometimes, the souls of birders change forms spontaneously. In the Spring, a birder’s daemon may be a Downy Woodpecker, in the Summer a Mountain Bluebird, in the Fall a Brambling, in the Winter a Western Grebe. In this documentary, they identify their daemons of the season for us.
“Bay-breasted Warbler. Boreal Owl, Gray Catbird. Hermit Thrush. Indigo Bunting. Wood Duck.”
“Worm-eating Warbler. Yellow-throated Warbler. Oven Bird. Northern Shoveler. Black-headed Gull. Blackpoll Warbler”
You see Anya Auerbach wistfully watching the birds and remembering her bird daemons. She speaks of how "alive, active, beautiful and varied" birds are... and it makes her feel protective of them, like she doesn’t want them scared. One wonders if she is projecting her own fears on the birds, and then one realizes that she and the birds are one and the same. They are her daemons, made of the same Dust! She dreamt just before one Spring-migration that every single migrant bird was perched on the same tree and it made her "so happy". Clearly, they are her past daemons paying her a visit, and assimilating themselves into a whole.
Central Park is an artificially created environment in 843-acres of land in the middle of an urban jungle. It has become real overtime by the sheer magic of Dust. Dust has settled on humans who manage the landscape, the birds and birders, the millions of people who visit on a daily basis, the transportation... Every little part of it, the greenery, the insects, the fungus, the soil has been put there by humans. The ponds and lakes and streams in them have water coming out of a hidden pipe under a rock, that can be turned off with the flick of a switch. But, it is not just Central Park; there is no place unmanaged by Dust. There is no land in the United States that is not managed to some degree or another. Even some of our most wild national parks and wildlife refuges have management underway, controlling the water levels in lakes and rivers, the vegetation of the place, the animal population… What is to say, this is not how it is meant to be? But then, there is extinction. Nearly a quarter of the species of birds have declined more than 50% in the last 40 years. Some dark matter is severing birders from their bird souls and wilfully killing joy. When it comes to birding, Joy is a very specific pursuit.
Chris Cooper speaks of the seven joys of birding.
- Experiencing the beauty of the birds: It is not narcissism when one appreciates the beauty of one’s own soul;
- Being in a natural setting: EO Wilson calls this Biophilia. We instinctively bond with nature and need it around us to feel more like ourselves.
- Puzzle-solving: Sometimes a birder’s daemon never shows itself fully. As it hides behind the leaves, birders piece it together to identify the bird that is their daemon;
- Collecting birds: As old daemons give way to new, birders collect them as memories and recollect them in their leisure time.
- Scientific discovery: In the Golden Compass, this is called Experimental Theology. When it comes to Dust, science converges with spirituality.
- Hunting without bloodshed: A birder often has to stalk his daemon to get to it.
- Unicorn effect: Sometimes birders become familiar with their bird daemons and develop a sense of intimacy with them, without ever seeing them. So they take on a mythological status and the birders wonder if they even exist. It’s what we call “soul-searching”. And then, one day, a daemon appears like a Unicorn came walking out of the forest.
- But, it won't be long before birds are imaginary and the Joy of pursuit is extinct. Respire by Mickey 3D reminds us such a world.
A special mention for Starr Saphir, the “matriarch” of birding, featured in this documentary. She had been leading bird walks in Central Park for over twenty years. You see her striding through the park with such love for the birds, and with such determination to meet as many of them as she could. She kept diaries (eighty in total) for many decades to note down the birds she saw everyday. One day, a Northern Goshawk landed on her apartment’s fire escape! She exclaimed “A bird appears in front of you in the most unlikely place or time!” and called it “the beauty where there wasn’t a moment before. It was so thrilling. It’s like magic.” Starr counted 2,582 different species of birds in her lifetime. Wherever she is, there's her favorite Cerulean Warbler by her side and a Northern Goshawk visiting to say hello. It must be magical place!