Grace and beauty of terror of the north

Snowy owl in the Scarborough Collections.
Snowy owl in the Scarborough Collections.

Now, here’s a fascinating fact that might just come in useful at the next pub quiz – an adult snowy owl can eat as many as 1,600 lemmings in a year.

Given that a lemming is of comparable size to a hamster, that’s a lot of rodent to digest. But the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) lives in some of the world’s coldest regions, including Norway, parts of North America, and Greenland, so it needs plentiful food to keep it insulated.

It occasionally turns up in Scotland, too: when one was spotted in the Cairngorms in the winter of 2013, it caused enough of a stir to merit a story on the BBC website. The Scottish Wildlife Trust said at the time that at least one snowy owl a year is recorded in Scotland. The last pair to actually breed in the UK did so on Shetland in 1975.

A fully-grown snowy owl must be a magnificent site in the wild. Standing at over two feet tall, this huge bird has glaring yellow eyes and – you’ve guessed it! – snowy white feathers. The male is almost pure white with just a light scattering of brown bars, while the female – like ours pictured here – is more heavily barred. Older males occasionally turn completely white.

The snowy owl has particularly deep, thick plumage; even its toes and claws are heavily feathered, as you can see in our detail picture. This built-in duvet helps them to survive the Arctic temperatures which can plummet as low as minus 40 degrees centigrade.

The owl’s favourite prey, the lemming, makes up the vast majority of its diet – up to 90%. Since the lemming breeds in a roughly four-year cycle not yet understood by scientists, its numbers fluctuate wildly, meaning that in barren years, the snowy owl will head further south than usual in search of other food – it’s also fond of other small rodents, rabbits, fish and birds, and will occasionally tackle prey as large as an Arctic fox or a goose.

A ‘still-hunter’, the snowy owl sits motionless until it spots its prey, then accelerates powerfully and rapidly in for the kill. Unlike most owls (which hunt at night), snowy owls are diurnal and hunt during the day or night. It’s thought that when food is scarce, the adult owl can live off its fat reserve for up to six weeks.

For such an efficient and powerful hunter, the snowy owl has a remarkable number of predators itself. Its nest, usually containing anything from three to 11 eggs, sits on the ground and is therefore vulnerable to attack by predators including Arctic foxes, skuas, huskies and, of course, man. Alaskans are allowed to kill snowy owls in unlimited numbers, mainly for food, although there is some evidence of an illegal trade in the eyes and feet of the owl as they are considered a delicacy in parts of Asia. Fortunately, they are not considered to be an endangered species.

Given its spectacular and ghost-like appearance, it’s perhaps surprising that there isn’t a richer mythology surrounding the snowy owl – we’ve only managed to turn up a couple of stories (we’re not counting Harry Potter). In Romania, it’s believed that the souls of repentant sinners fly to heaven in the guise of a snowy owl, while native peoples from North America, Scandinavia and Russia considered the creature to be a symbol of bravery and called it the ghost owl, tundra ghost or white terror of the north.

The Inuit name Ookpik has been commandeered as a symbol of Canada, often in the form of a cuddly toy or mascot fashioned from sealskin or wolf fur.

The snowy owl is also one of the subjects of the seminal work Birds of America by the legendary naturalist and artist John James Audubon.

The snowy owl is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.