There are over 10,000 bird species in the world. That means that if you only ever birdwatch in your hometown, you’ll see 1-3% of all the birds in the world.
That’s not enough for some birders. Not when your goal is to complete “The List.” The list of all the bird species you have ever seen.
Some people take The List incredibly seriously. The “I’m not flying back home until I find this species” type of serious.
But on my trip to Canada in December, I, a Texan, had a bigger priority: Don’t get frostbite.
In pursuit of this goal, I kept to the underground pedestrian Path. Thus, I didn’t birdwatch while in Canada. But if I had birdwatched, one of my main priorities would have been the Snowy Owl.
I actually have seen a Snowy Owl (as a specimen). Let me tell you the story and let you in on some fun facts…
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Collections
It was 2015, my Junior year of high school. As part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Young Birders Event 2015, fifteen other high school birders and I were given access to the collections.
Rows and rows of ten-foot cupboards that kind of look like industrial freezers filled a large room. Even though I’ve returned to the collections several times since then, I still couldn’t tell you how large the room is. The maze of corridors that can be opened and closed at will by pushing cupboards together make it difficult to gauge dimensions.
But the real magic of the collections, came when the cupboards open. Hundreds of birds, some extinct, and from all across the globe. So many birds that I had only dreamed of seeing. Ethereally blue fairywrens. Subtle antbirds. Birds-of-paradise with their extravagant ornamental feathers.
The Cornell professor led our dumbfounded group around the collections, opening drawers to reveal their various treasures. We arrived at the Snowy Owl.
“I’ve learned to be careful with this one,” he says, holding up the owl for everyone to see. A previous year, he gave this very same tour to a group of local high schoolers. It was soon after the theatrical release of Deathly Hallows. Lifting the owl up, just as he was now, he had proclaimed, “If you were wondering where Hedwig ended up…”
A girl burst into tears.
“And that is why I don’t make that joke anymore,” he finished explaining, as we took turns stroking the white feathers carefully.
In our group, no one burst into tears. Our eyes were dry and wide open in awe. This moment set me on the ornithology path.
Let me share a couple fun facts about Snowy Owls.
Snowy Owl Fun Facts
Snowy Owls are Diurnal
Unlike other owls, snowy owls hunt in the day. This is because they hunt in the Arctic circle–24-hour daylight!
The Males’ Mating Display Involves Prey
When attracting females, male snowy owls will fly into the air holding a lemming (rodent) in its bill or talon. He then descends to the ground, drops the lemming, and fans his tail. The way to a female snowy owl’s heart is her stomach.
They are Found in Cave Paintings
The snowy owl has captured humanity’s imagination since prehistoric times! Snowy owls are considered to be one of the oldest bird species found in cave art in France!
Hedwig is Actually Male
At least in the movies, Hedwig is depicted as pure white. This indicates a Snowy Owl as male. The females have brown barring on their feathers.
The list of fun facts goes on. Check out All About Birds for a more in depth look at Snowy Owls. I’ll end with a quick note on specimen collections.
A Note about Collections
To some, it might seem cruel or excessive to keep hundreds of dead birds and other animals in collections. However, specimens provide immense value. Here are a couple scientific benefits:
- Documenting the origin and spread of emergent infections diseases
- Tracking trends in black carbon pollution measured from bird specimens (I worked on such a project at the Harvard collections)
- Providing a record of hisorical changes in diet, migration routes, environmental stress, and morphology
- Measuring the effects of climate change on ecological communities
For more details on these benefits, read this The Royal Society paper. Also note that our outdoor cats are responsible for exponentially more bird deaths than scientists.
Want a full post on collections? Let me know in the comments below!