Ookpik had its origins when I saw a snowy owl in a big field near Ft. Edward, NY, about 25 miles from my home. This occurred in the late 1980's, and at the time I had no idea of writing a book about the owl, although I was fascinated by this northern visitor. In subsequent years I traveled the Arctic from Alaska to Labrador, but never once saw snowy owl on the tundra, although I did find a dead bird in the Northwest Territories, west of Hudson Bay.
The lack of live sightings was simply bad luck, as on my adventures in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, I was well within their range. However, that year the lemming population had "crashed" in the area I traveled, and none of the little hamster sized rodents were anywhere be found. Lemmings are the main food of snowy owls, and when the population crashes, as it does in regular cycles, the owls move to better hunting grounds. It was clear that the owls were gone, for I found feathers, owl pellets, and other evidence that they had frequented the area not too long ago.
When lemming populations are low, snowy owls will leave the Arctic as winter approaches and fly south. They hunt mice and rabbits, and prefer to spend time large open areas that resemble their homeland tundra. The wide pastures of dairy farms and also airport grounds provide good, open hunting spaces for these large birds.
Over the years, I have seen several snowy owls in this location. They are generally young owls, with less experience in surviving the Arctic in winter. This recurring migration, is what prompted me to research the comings and goings of snowy owls in our area. Some of them have been equipped with radio collars, and so their migration routes are well known. I have selected Baffin Island as a birth place for Ookpik, as some of the collared owls are known to have migrated from there.
While it is not possible to know how old a snowy owl is from a sighting, you can at least make a reasonable guess. Young owls are heavily marked, a form of camouflage that helps them survive. Males do not turn pure white until they are at least two years old. Females always retain mixed colors.
The photograph below, taken at a distance, shows what is probably a female, sitting on top of a power pole. I have seen them sitting on houses and hay bales, but never in the surrounding trees, as trees are not found on the tundra, their native hunting ground.
As luck would have it, I found the Utica, NY, zoo had a pair of snowy owls. This allowed me to study the owls up close, do sketches, and take photos. In this picture you can clearly see the difference between the white male, and the female with gray markings.
Ookpik, which means snowy owl in Inukituk, the native language of the Canadian Arctic, is the latest in my series of books about the far north, which include Tundra, and The Big Caribou Herd. This fascination with things north stems from my experience of living in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska when I was a kid.
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