Highland Wildlife Blog – Climate Change and Snowy Owls

September 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

By Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park

As with animals like our European bison, snowy owls have been a feature of the Highland Wildlife Park since it opened in 1972. Historically the species figured in the list of Scottish wildlife, but although a single individual was photographed on the Cairngorms last year, the last time there was a wild breeding pair within the UK was on Shetland in 1975.

Snowy owl

Snowy owl by Jan Morse

Although there had been some breeding behaviour over the years at the Park, no chicks were ever reared and it was not until 2011, following a number of changes to the birds’ enclosure, that we actually reared a snowy owl chick. Having a chick hatched and reared, especially as it was a first for the Park, was a pretty special event for us, but of minor importance in the wider zoo community. However, as snowy owls have generally been quite prolific in zoos, I thought it may take some time to find a good home for our first home-grown chick, but a good location was quickly found. In 2012 we did not rear any, but as we had moved them to a new, larger aviary, it was not surprising that the move probably disrupted their breeding pattern.

Snowy owl chick by Alex Riddell

Snowy owl chick by Alex Riddell

In 2013 we reared two chicks and I did advise the keepers that it may take some time to find good homes for both birds, but as it turned out, I could have placed even more snowy owls with relative ease. Shortly after moving the 2013 chicks to their new homes, I was speaking with a colleague from a specialist collection in the north of England who has much more extensive experience with owls, and I told him of my surprise at being able to place snowy chicks easily. He then told me that they had stopped trying to breed the species at his facility as in recent years they had lost all the chicks to avian malaria.

Avian malaria surfaced significantly in the UK in the 1990’s when it was the cause of a number of high profile deaths of penguins in zoos in the very south of England; one zoo lost virtually their entire flock. It was certainly not an issue for snowy owls back then and certainly not in the north of England. I then started to look at the international zoo animal data bases to see who was doing what with snowy owls, and sure enough, our success, although not unique, was certainly rarer than I had imagined.

It is often stated that major weather events could be signs of climate change, and certainly there is growing evidence that they will become more frequent or occur in locations that have no history of such events. But the signs are more likely to be an accumulation of small changes that will add-up to provide the evidence. Migratory birds arriving early, nesting patterns changing or snowy owls not breeding in zoos in the north of England may be as indicative of climate change as excessive rain or more violent storms.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald


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