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Snowy Owl

Bubo scandiacus

Order:
Strigiformes
Family:
Strigidae
Sections

Conservation and Management

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Effects of Human Activity

Shooting, Trapping, Poisoning

Historically, one of the most persecuted owls in North America. During the winter of 1876/1877 about 500 Snowy Owl migrated to the New England area – most were shot (Bulletin Nuttall Ornithological Club vol., 2, 1877, p. 10, in Fisher 1893). Bent (1938), in his review of Snowy Owl irruptions, tells how taxidermist E.S. Cameron, from North Dakota, had 500 skins sent to him during the 1889/1890 irruption, while J.H. Flemming reported 500-1,000 Snowy Owls killed during the 1901/1902 irruption in Ontario, Canada. During the 1905/1906 irruption, R. Deane received some 800 specimens over a wide geographic area. See also Gross (1947).

Also historically, commonly used as a food source by native people of the Arctic; eggs were collected and adults killed for food. Currently, subsistence hunting has decreased significantly and probably has little, if any, effect on Snowy Owl populations. In 2004 in Barrow, AK, the Native Village of Barrow Inũpiat Traditional Government passed a resolution forbidding the killing of Snowy Owls in the Barrow region. Indeed, in 2004, resolution 2004-10, outlawing the killing of Snowy Owl around the village of Barrow was unanimously passed. This has reduced killings to random incidents. Nonetheless, elsewhere in Alaska native traditional harvest is still allowed. As of 2012-2013, Alaska Department of Fish and Game lists the Snowy Owl as “unclassified game” -- a species that can be hunted for subsistence for residents of Alaska. We see this as an outdated designation in need of remedy, given the modernization of most aboriginal villages in Alaska and n. Canada.

Snowy Owls generally breed in remote areas little affected by human development. In a few areas, as human settlements increase in size in the Arctic, the owls could be affected by housing and natural resource development. In Barrow, AK, for example, the growing community has placed new buildings on areas where the owls prefer to nest (Holt et al. 2009), thus pushing them from traditional breeding grounds. Barrow is the most reliable breeding site for Snowy Owls in the U.S. However, the Snowy Owl can adapt to limited development if the immediate areas around nesting sites remain undisturbed.

Winter fox trapping can impact Snowy Owls significantly. In Siberia, Ellis and Smith (1993) estimated 300 killed in these traps during one winter, but their estimates of 100,000 trapped per winter need verification. We need a better system of reporting incidental trap captures during fur trapping seasons on both breeding and wintering grounds.

Known vulnerable to secondary poisoning by Warfarin bait set for rats (Campbell and Preston 2009; Stone et al. 1999). At Logan Airport, Boston, MA, 6 Snowy Owls died from rodenticide poisoning (N. Smith, unpubl. data).

Climate Change

Species is likely to be impacted by a warming climate, as its arctic breeding grounds are particularly vulnerable to temperature increases. As temperatures rise, abiotic factors such as increased rain, and reduced snow (ACIA 2004), are likely to affect lemming populations and thus the Snowy Owls that depend on them. Likewise, Snowy Owls hunt over pack ice and polynyas in winter (see Habitat, above). As sea ice distribution shifts and disappears with a warming climate, dispersing prey, impacts on Snowy Owls could be significant. Clearly many unknowns remain here, but this owl has the potential to be a key indicator in changing arctic environments.

Research

In the past decade, efforts have been increasingly underway to study Snowy Owl movements via satellite transmitters (see Migration). Many interesting results have been derived from these studies. Researchers appear confident that no adverse effects of the transmitters can be found (e.g., Fuller et al. 2003, Therrien et al. 2011a); mortality has been relatively low, ca. 10-20%, but such invasive methods demand continued monitoring.

Disturbance

Nesting Snowy Owls are vulnerable to disturbance, particularly during bad weather. In Barrow, AK, for example, guidelines for filmmakers, photographers and birdwatchers have been established with United Inũpiat Corporation (UIC) and can be requested through UIC Real Estate or UIC Umiaq, Barrow, AK.

Management

Nomadic breeding strategies and remote Arctic nesting grounds put this species low on the list of North American owls in need of management. Only populations nesting near human settlements (e.g., Barrow, AK) might show such need, but to date no sustained management efforts have been warranted for any Snowy Owl nesting population.

Wintering concentrations, however, especially those at major airports in the US, have received attention. Because Snowy Owls sometimes (but rarely) collide with airplanes (flocking birds like geese are more likely to do so), safety concerns have prompted airport personnel to try to remove some of the owls. Shooting individuals has been one method tried, often generating negative publicity (http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/lawsuit-snowy-owls-article-1.1558491). Trapping and removing individuals works better and is increasingly used; e.g., at Logan Airport, Boston, MA, where > 500 Snowy Owls were captured and released at remote locations in the past decade (http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/03/15/officials-release-snowy-owl-captured-logan/5KaN8tXqWoHsu22oBaJqAL/story.html).

The International Snowy Owl Working Group (ISOWG) is a loosely formed group organized in 2000 and dedicated to accumulating, summarizing, prioritizing, and recommending research and conservation issues related to Snowy Owls. The foremost issue is the assessment of the Snowy Owl population estimate. See Demography and Populations: population status.

Recommended Citation

Holt, D. W., M. D. Larson, N. Smith, D. L. Evans and D. F. Parmelee. 2015. Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.10