Nashville Zoo welcomed two snowy owls on July 13 and July 15. These owls are the first raptors to be hatched at Nashville Zoo since the Zoo was located in Joelton, TN back in the 1990s.
Unlike other animals, such as our clouded leopards, where working with their keepers from an early age helps them become more comfortable with humans later in life, some species of birds, including snowy owls, have the reverse reaction to working closely with humans as chicks.
“Baby birds can become 'imprinted' on whoever raises them,” said Nashville Zoo Avian Curator, Joe de Graauw. “Later in their lives, this can cause the birds to become aggressive toward people or even just down right needy; constantly pestering keepers, etc...”
To avoid having the bird imprint on keepers who feed them bits of mice, Nashville Zoo avian staff disguise themselves in a white pillowcase and yellow goggles to look more like a snowy owl. When snowy owls are chicks they are fed about four times per day.
“The disguise is used so the chicks relate to the costume (in this case a snowy owl) rather than people,” de Graauw said.
Some bird species can be hand-raised without ill effects.
“In the case of our lorikeet chicks, we want them to be accustomed to being around people, so we don’t use disguises when feeding them,” de Graauw said. “Generally, the larger and more dangerous a bird can be toward people we want to avoid hand-raising them.”
The chicks’ parents are Lakota, female, and Sesi, male. The sex of the chicks has not been determined yet. The chicks will be adult size around 2-3 months and reach maturity in one year. Snowy owls will build their nest right on the ground with a breeding pair often returning to the same site year after year to lay their eggs. Snowy owls fiercely protect their breeding areas from other owls and even wolves.
These large ghost-like owls have white feathers to match the snowy arctic areas where they spend much of the year. The whitest birds are males, while females can have brown or black markings.
Nashville Zoo is part of the Species Survival Plan for snowy owls. Although snowy owls are of least concern on the IUCN Red List, the captive population has slowly been trending downward. While there is no reason to be alarmed, Nashville Zoo is one of just a handful of zoos in the Untied States that have hatched chicks this year.