A Snowy Owl photographed in Union earlier this month  Photo by Don Reimer
A Snowy Owl photographed in Union earlier this month Photo by Don Reimer
My earliest childhood recollection of this majestic raptor is noticing the bird's striking logo on a box of White Owl Cigars. A few winters later I spotted such an owl perched atop a neighbor's roofline in New Harbor village; the unyielding, yellow-eyed bird sat without motion, staring down at the curious onlooker below.

The Snowy Owl has a couple of distinctions among the owl set. It is the most northerly nesting and the heaviest of the owl species. Snowys nest north of 60 degrees north latitude and share the top predator ranking there with the polar bear. On the breeding grounds, however, Arctic foxes and jaegers occasionally prey on their eggs and nestlings. Snowy Owls scratch a simple nest on the open ground and along gravel bars. Occasionally an abandoned eagle's nest is used in the southern part of the nesting range. Depending on available food supplies, female owls can adjust the number of eggs they lay in a given year. On average, seven to eight eggs are laid on alternate days.

Despite the Snowys' apparent large size, the thick fluffy feathering of most owls makes them appear bigger than they actually are. Snowy Owls weigh a hefty 3.5 to 6.5 pounds, with the females being larger. Snowy Owls are readily identified by their generally white plumage and rounded head shape. There is great variation in plumage types that is related to the age and sex of each individual owl. Adult male Snowys are the whitest, with females and younger birds showing various degrees of black barring and spotting on the torso. In any plumage, the face is always a bright white color.

Each winter a number of Snowy Owls arrive in Maine in search of food. To sustain themselves, they require a diet of three to five small rodents per day. Using a patient, persistent hunting style, these diurnal owls often sit along exposed rock walls and other low perches to scan for prey. In winter they are most often found in expansive sections of barren ground - along airport perimeters and in open fields and coastal beach dunes. Being powerful fliers, a number of these owls often winter at offshore islands such as Monhegan. It goes without saying that a high mortality rate (especially among the younger owls) occurs each year.