Sunday, December 8, 2013

On Identifying Non-Snowy Owls

Perhaps you've heard already, but it's looking like Snowy Owls are invading this winter.

I say "perhaps" because it's been written about, wait for it:

herehereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here, just to name a few.

Yet for all the press, I find that something is going overlooked: the proper identification of Non-Snowy Owls (official banding code: NSOW; Latin name Nonsnowycus whitethingis). Steve Brenner gives this helpful rundown of a couple misleading objects, and this tumblr will no doubt be a crucial resource in moving forward in this field. But I want to press the issue a little further, looking at identification and taxonomic issues.

Identification - Living Non-Snowy Owls:

I assume birders to be proficient in this area, thus this section will be short. However, given the reality of frequently interacting with non-birders, this could provide a helpful refresher, and maybe even some useful fodder for conversation with friends and family over the holidays. "Hey uncle Frank, remember how you told me that you saw a Snowy Owl on your trip to Dallas last June? Well, I've been meaning to talk to you about that..." Here are some of the culprits:

  • Barn Owls - Just because an owl is white does not mean it is a Snowy Owl. You know this, but your friends don't. Be kind in the way that you break the news to them that the bird that hangs out year round in their back shed is indeed something other than a Snowy Owl.
Owl that is white? Yes.
Snowy Owl? No.

  • Gulls - Though sometimes confused with Snowy Owls, the key thing to remember is that gulls look nothing like owls. Bulky bodies. Large heads. Thick wings. These are characteristics of owls, not gulls.
A flock of gulls in flight. Notice how they look like gulls, not Snowy Owls.

  • Small white mammals - Whether it's an ermine, feral cat, or white yapper dog, it's essential to note that all of these things have four legs. Snowy Owls only have two. Also, mammals don't fly. Snowy Owls do.
  • White Phase Gyrfalcon - If you see this glorious white ghost, you're probably not hurting for Snowy Owl encounters.

Identification - Non-living Non-Snowy Owls:

The non-living Non-Snowy Owl can, surprisingly, be a little trickier. It is generally described as "a white thing, resembling a Snowy Owl, with a distinct lack of the features shared by all Snowy Owls - no feathers, no bill, no talons, no wings, no consistent migratory pattern."* The point on migratory patterns is currently debated, because the data continues to pile up and there seems to be a clear connection between the current subspecies plasticbagian (Plastic Bag; see below) and agricultural fields directly to the south of the nearest grocery store/gas station.

Since Snowy Owls show up in a wide array of habitats (from roof tops to driftwood), and since they are known to migrate to absurd locations (Bermuda? Really?), it's important that we don't restrict the Non-Snowy Owl to a specific set of behaviors or a particular range map. They can show up anywhere, by any means, and look like almost anything.

As a way of discussing some of the distinctive features of the different types of non-living Non-Snowy Owls, I'm offering the following as a proposed split for this species.

Proposed Taxonomic Breakdown:
Should Snowy Owls be categorized under the genus Bubo? David Ringer provides some helpful thoughts on this matter here. But the question I'm interested is this: will all the subspecies of NSOW continue to be lumped into one species, or will they be split? For all its well-earned hype, the ABA's outstanding Birder's Guide to Listing and Taxonomy has clearly overlooked this matter. Here are my proposed splits:
  • Nonsnowycus plasticbagian - The Plastic Bag. This is a particularly tricky one, for the Non-Snowy Plastic Bag can even move at times, giving the impression of an actual Snowy Owl. It also takes on a number of different shapes. A scope is typically needed on these when they're stuck out in a field, but if the one being blown quickly along the ground has you thinking Snowy Owl, you may consider looking into a new hobby. 

This beautiful adult male was worthy of a look in the scope for me. Note the lack of any black markings.
Nonsnowycus plasticbagian
DuPage Co, IL
December 6, 2013

Nonsnowycus stupidsignus - The Stupid Sign. A sign out in the middle of the field can be good for approximately zero things, hence the classification Stupid Sign. While some may consider this a little harsh, let's think about it for a minute. Small signs in fields can't be read by anyone. Take for instance the sign below, which is nestled up against a berm (common in all NSOW), thus not visible from the other side. It is also a couple hundred yards from where this picture was taken, from whence it is obviously not legible. Also, it is not a Snowy Owl, adding to its stupidity.

The quadrilateral nature of this Non-Snowy readily separates it from a Snowy Owl. However, it can easily be confused with the plasticbagian subspecies if it the wind sustains one in a square-like shape for a prolonged period of time (common on the Great Plains and in coastal regions).
Nonsnowycus stupidsignus
DuPage Co, IL
December 6, 2013

Nonsnowycus milkcartonus - The Milk Carton. Even the vegans and lactose intolerant stumble upon a milkcartonus here and there. These can be found in fields, cap on or off. The 2% variety can be a dead give away for this species by that royal blue sticker on the side - but only if it's still adhered, and even then can be viewed only at certain angles. Also, the handle is a great thing to look for, but again can only be discrned at certain angles. A scope is preferred for a sure ID.

Here's a look at the milkcartonus in its natural setting amongst coffee creamer, spinach artichoke dip, and leftovers. It's nice to get to study these at close range every once and a while.
Nonsnowycus milkcartonus
DuPage Co, IL
December 8, 2013

Nonsnowycus driftwoodis - Driftwood. Those in the coastal regions are likely familiar with this. While unlikely to be confused with another species of Non-Snowy, they can at times give a Snowy Owl-like impression.

The Non-Snowy Driftwood can be difficult to pick out when five actual Snowy Owls draw most of your attention. This one snuck its way in on the left side of this pic.
Notice also the rare pasty-white jogger leg in the top left corner - these do not often share the same climate as Snowy Owls.
Boundary Bay, British Columbia
December 21, 2011

Nonsnowycus sp. - If this taxonomic alteration goes through, there will be some frustrating moments when you can't assign your NSOW to a species. Lighting, angle, and distance all have a role to play here.
I had to let this one go as a spuh. The blob-ish nature of this Non-Snowy could fit a couple species, though I think milkcartonus and driftwoodis can be ruled out.

Hopefully others will soon get interested in this field as well. There's always something to learn and seemingly always a new piece of crap trying to masquerade as a true Snowy.

Lest all this nonsense confuse you too much, I'll close this post with an actual Snowy Owl from two years ago:
No, it didn't flush.
Snowy Owl
Montrose, Cook Co, IL
December 15, 2011

*Myself, 2013.