Shad talks about snowy owls

The snowy owl is one of the most recognisable of owls due to its cat-like yellow eyes and unmistakeable white plumage that echoes its Arctic roots.  It’s the largest (by weight) North American owl and is a carnivore, living up to 10 years in the wild and weighing around 3 to 7 lbs (up to 3kg), with a wingspan of 4 or 5 feet (up to 1.5m).  This regal creature is diurnal which means that it is active both day and night, unlike most owls that tend to hunt solely at night.  The snowy owl is a patient hunter with keen eyesight and extraordinary hearing which enable it to identify prey under thick vegetation or snow-cover, before swooping down to deftly seize its quarry with its sharp talons.  The snowy owl’s preferred meal is lemmings (a fierce little rodent smaller than a chipmunk), consuming 3 to 5 each day, and supplementing its diet with rabbits, rodents, birds and fish.

These magnificent owls sometimes remain year-round in their northern breeding grounds, but they are frequent migrants to Canada, the northern United States, Europe, and Asia.  Unless you’re planning to visit the high arctic, you’ll mainly find them in the wild during winter in windswept fields or wide-open areas such as dunes or shorelines, perhaps around Canada or Alaska.  They like tree-less places and rolling terrain where they can find a vantage point to survey the surrounding area, seeking out a good view by perching on telephone poles, buildings, hay-bales, or fence-posts.  In summer, the snowy owl hunts lemmings and other prey in the 24-hour daylight of the Arctic Circle.  Snowy owls were known to breed on the remote islands of the Shetland Isles north of Scotland in the past, but their status in Britain is now that of a rare winter visitor to the Shetland and Outer Hebrides region.

The snowy owl’s beautiful white plumage helps it to hide in its Arctic habitat. They breed on the Arctic tundra, where females lay a clutch of 3 to 11 eggs, depending on the availability of food, and in particularly lean times they may not breed at all. Parents are territorial and brave and will defend their nests against all threats, including wolves and humans.  Only the males are completely white, often flecked with dark brown when they are chicks, they get whiter as they get older.  The females are usually darker than males or may be white with dusky spots on their wings.

I don’t think John will mind me saying that he has the entire collection of Harry Potter movies (for his grandchildren to enjoy so he claims) and I have watched them through on several occasions.  Harry’s owl Hedwig is a snowy owl and although the character is a female, she is played by male owls because their plumage is so white and they are lighter than the females and therefore easier to handle for the human actors.  Seven different owls apparently played the role of Hedwig and their names are Oops, Swoops, Oh Oh, Kasper, Gizmo, Elmo and Bandit.

Shad Does The Hawk Conservancy Trust

Now I know domestic cats have a reputation for hunting birds, but you’d have to be a very brave cat to go after these magnificent birds of prey.  The photos of these brilliant birds were taken when John and I visited the Hawk Conservancy in Hampshire last week.

These beautiful birds feed on insects, other birds and small animals and rely on their keen senses, acute hearing, powerful talons and strong beaks.  We strolled around the grounds looking in the large aviaries and across the grassland area and viewed the local wild birds from the hides and saw some spectacular flying demonstrations.

One such display was part of a re-enactment of medieval village life which saw staff and visitors dress up in costumes to play a variety of roles including beekeeper, hay-turner, washerwoman and ploughman.  Everyone was enthusiastic and looked up in awe as the birds glided, circling overhead, before swooping down towards us.  The vultures came so close to me that I felt the breeze from their huge wings brush against my whiskers as they soared past.  I swear they were targeting me, possibly due to my sweet feline scent, apparently vultures have a keen sense of smell.  Its a good job I’m generously proportioned – any smaller and I might have been grabbed as a juicy snack!

Hawk Conservancy Trust

The Hawk Conservancy do much more than look after birds and entertain the visitors.  They fight for the birds who cannot speak for themselves, especially as many of them are in decline and at risk of disappearing from the countryside altogether due to habitat loss and peculiar humans who want to trap and kill them.  The charity works in conservation, education, rehabilitation and the research of birds of prey as well as breeding and environmental enrichment projects.  It was a remarkable day and hats off to the keepers and handlers who train the birds and work in perfect harmony with them.  The skies were blue with a few puffy clouds so as not to be too bright, and the winds were gentle, ideal for flying.  This experience has given me a renewed sense of respect for my flying friends (except perhaps the pigeon that taunts me from the tree at the bottom of my garden)!

Hawk Conservancy Trust