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Snowy Owls May Provide Early Indications of Climate Change

Snowy OwlOwls 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.

Other Owls

Elf OwlThe 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.



Further Reading

The Owl Research Institute

Encountering the Great Horned Owl in Nature and Captivity

Video: Training a Snowy Owl to fly to a lure

Snowy Owl image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Pe_ha45

Elf Owl image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Hayford Peirce



  1. avatar

    Hallo Frank
    Truly amazing birds! I can vaguely record I documentary I saw of an, I think, barn owl.
    They made an experiment by putting a room full of long logs/beads all over the room. On one end they put a tame owl and turned the room pitch black!
    With infrared cameras they could film the owl flying with amazing speed right through these obstacles with out touching even a bit of its feathers…!!!
    Knowing of the different ear sizes of owls(to detect prey utter dark nights) I am still stunned by that documentary!

    Thanxzzz four your amazing article!

  2. avatar

    Hello Gert, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks very much for the kind words and interesting note. Yes, their abilities are unbelievable; Great Grey Owls crash through the snow to catch mice moving below, guided entirely by sound- all sorts of amazing stories!

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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