Owls are great favorites of mine, and I’ve had the good fortune to work with and observe many species in both captivity and the wild (please see articles below). One of my most memorable wild owl experiences occurred, surprisingly, in the Bronx, when I was but 6 years old. A huge Snowy Owl perched on the roof of my home for 4 hours, awing me as had nothing else. I quickly learned that Snowy Owls travel south from their Arctic haunts when their primary prey (a small rodent known as the Lemming) is in short supply. Now biologists are finding that the close ties between Lemmings and Snowy Owls may provide important information concerning climate change.
The Arctic Ecosystem and Global Warming
Lemmings are at the base of the food chain in the Arctic, providing 90% of the Snowy Owl’s food, and being nearly as important to Weasels, Arctic Foxes, Skuas and many other predators. Their regular population peaks and crashes affect Snowy Owls directly and very quickly, and are responsible for the owls showing up in the lower 48 states during some winters.
Arctic habitats are already feeling the effects of climate change…in fact, the plight of Polar Bears displaced by receding ice has captured the attention of people around the world. Biologists expect that Lemmings may also soon be impacted by rising temperatures as well. If this occurs, Snowy Owls will be the first animals to react.
The Importance of Owl Studies
In terms of climate change studies, Snowy Owls are important for many reasons. As they are nearly totally dependant upon Lemmings for food, Snowy Owls will quickly respond to a drop in Lemming numbers by moving south in search of rabbits, mice and other prey. Being huge, white, active by day and not normally found outside of the Arctic, they are noticed by even the most casual of observers, and biologists quickly become aware of sightings. As study animals, Snowy Owls are therefore easier to monitor than Polar Bears, Lemmings and other Arctic creatures.
Snowy Owls and other animals that provide early indications of environmental problems function as the “Canary in the coal mine” (in years past, miners kept Canaries on hand to warn them of the presence of poisonous gasses, as the birds felt the effects before people did). Amphibians serve in much the same manner…due in part to their porous skins, frogs and salamanders are often killed by pollutants long before other creatures are affected.
Long Term Research
Researchers at the Owl Research Institute have studied the same Snowy Owl populations in Alaska for over 20 years (please see article below). The data generated provides us with an unusually long time frame, and should be of great value in monitoring the effects of rising temperatures or other environmental changes.
Snowy Owls are found throughout the Arctic Circle, and are also studied in Russia, Greenland and elsewhere. Integrating this research with that carried out by the Owl Research Institute should help us to better understand climate change, and perhaps prepare a plan of action.
The world’s 250+ owl species are a study in contrasts. The Elf Owl of the American Southwest weighs a mere 2 ounces and feeds on insects, the massive Eagle Owls of Eurasia and Africa have been known to take deer fawns. Great Horned Owls, the New World’s Eagle Owl, nest in NYC and prey upon cats, rats and skunks (please see article below). Barn Owls live on every continent except Antarctica, while Short Eared Owl populations have plummeted by 70% in recent years. Please see the articles below for more information.
The Owl Research Institute
Snowy Owl image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Pe_ha45
Elf Owl image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Hayford Peirce