Polar Owls in Moscow Zoo Have Offspring

August 7
Parks and pedestrian areas

Snowy owls in the Moscow Zoo have borne offspring. Four chicks were born this summer. This species is included in the International Red Book under the category of “vulnerable”. The population of these birds of prey in the wild numbers around 20,000, but is declining year by year.

"The mating season for snowy owls, also called polar owls, is winter. In February, our pair of owls started courting: the male gave its mate treats, flew around loudly flapping its wings and walked around with its feathers ruffled up. In spring, when the snow had melted, the owls dug a hole in the ground for a nest. While the female was incubating the eggs, the male brought her food and also protected her if he felt threatened. At this important time in their lives, the ornithologists refrained from entering the enclosure unnecessarily," Svetlana Akulova, general director of the Moscow Zoo, said.

This is the couple's second offspring. Last year, the owls proved to be caring and cautious parents, so birdwatchers are hardly involved in raising chicks. Specialists only keep an eye on the development of the chicks. The primary veterinary examination revealed that all four chicks were healthy.

So far, the chicks only vaguely resemble their graceful parents and are covered in chick grey down hair. Soon the chicks will start to moult. By winter, they will have had white plumage with dark spots.

Little raptors eat what their parents do - mice. The chicks are practically self-maintained and, if they find their own prey, try to swallow it. However, sometimes they need help: when there is no food around, the owlets start calling out loudly and insistently to their mother.

The polar owls' aviary is located on the Moscow Zoo expanded area next to the polar bears' dwelling. In their natural habitat, these birds nest on hills and bank ledges. The Zoo's dwellings mimic natural terrain, with terraces of varying heights. The grass in the aviary is not mowed to create shelter for the chicks. They can hide in the thicket from noise and prying eyes if they wish.

When the owlets grow up, they will be sent to leading Russian or foreign zoos to help create a reserve population of the rare species.

In the wild, snowy owls can be found in the tundra of Eurasia, North America and Greenland, on Wrangel Island, on the archipelagos of Novaya Zemlya and Spitsbergen, as well as on other islands that are washed by the Arctic Ocean. These birds are partly migratory. Some may migrate for the winter, while others stay in their breeding grounds all year round.

The polar owls prefer to settle in open areas: this makes it easier for them to hunt. The numbers of this species have been steadily declining. In the middle of the last century, for example, the number of snowy owls in North America halved. Global warming and poaching are damaging the population.

The snowy owls are among the largest birds on the tundra, with females usually being bigger than males. The owls vary in body length from 55 to 70 centimetres and weigh two to three kilograms. These birds have protective colour, that is, inconspicuous in their habitats. The white feathers (which give the species its name) allow raptors to blend into the snow. The females also have dark mottled hairs to camouflage themselves in the nest. The eyes are rounded, bright yellow. The owls don't mind severe frosts: they have very thick plumage and even their legs and beak are protected from the cold by fine feathers.

Photo by Yulia Ivanko, Mos.ru

The birds boast sharp eyesight and keen hearing. They can hear rodents swarming on the ground several kilometres away. For the hunt, the raptors settle on an elevated spot and watch. On spotting potential prey, they swish their wings, fly up and catch it with their claws. They move almost silently. The polar owls rely predominantly on lemmings for their diet, and less frequently they feed on hares and stoats. Occasionally they fly into villages and attack ducks, small geese and partridges.

They are solitary birds; they pair up only during the mating season. The parents never hunt in areas close to nests. The male and female fiercely defend the area near their clutch of eggs from natural enemies, including polar foxes and foxes. Aware of this feature, other birds (e.g. gulls) purposely settle in the owls’ nest neighborhood, so that the powerful birds protect their nests as well.

The life expectancy of wild polar owls reaches 15 years, and they live as long as 30 years in captivity.

This summer, another rare bird, the great bustard, hatched at the Moscow Zoo's Endangered Species Breeding Centre. The species is included the International Red Book of Threatened Species. The bustards are very secretive and restless; they hardly ever breed in captivity. The birds were added to the Centre in 2005, but have only now finally adapted and started fledging. The Moscow zoo has been among the first zoos in the world to succeed in obtaining offspring from great bustards.

Source: mos.ru

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