"Zen teaches nothing; it merely enables us to wake up and become aware. It does not teach, it points." ~D.T. Suzuki

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ookpik The Snowy Owl

The Snowy Owl

Bubo scandiacus
This year the Snowy Owls are in irruption!
Occasionally and unpredictably, Snowy Owls will have what are called "irruptions"
when they fly much further south than their usual latitudes.
But little is know about these events and information is needed.
Researchers need to know when they are seen.
If you see any Snowy owls in your area and can take good photos of them,
send the images here: 
Contribute to research on Snowy Owls!

(the Inuktitut word for Snowy owl)

The amazing Ookpik or Snowy owls generally live north of 60 degrees latitude. This area includes parts of Northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, China, Russia and the state of Alaska. Within this ring of latitude, temperatures can be a bone chilling -50 degrees Celsius.

However, Snowy owls have a physiology that is adapted to the cold. This includes a dense layer of down plus extremely well insulating feathers that cover the entire body from its' black bill, all the way down to its' toes and talons. On a typical bone-chilling Arctic day, a snowy owl can maintain a comfortable body temperature of between 38 to 40 degrees Celsius.

The Snowy owl adult males are all white and the females are barred with dark brown bands on their feathers. Immature males are also barred like the females. The baby ookpik is all brown with a smattering of white tips. 

The characteristic round head acts like a satellite receiver dish that channels and amplifies sound to the ear openings. Although they are very effective night hunters, unlike other owls, the snowy owl is diurnal, hunting mostly during the day. The round, yellow eyes are probably the best color to deal with glare from the bright reflection off the glittering snow of the tundra. Within the Arctic circle the sun doesn't really set all summer. Which also happens to be the Snowy owl nesting season.

They live in open grasslands, along the shores of lakes, marshes and marine coastlines where food can be found. Females will often stay incubating the eggs while the male will hunt and return with food.

It's known as a patient bird. Waiting, perched on a vantage point, watching and listening over an expanse of snow-blanketed grassland for the slightest sign of movement. Ookpiks seem to like lemmings. A hearty meal an adult can take in one gulp. Though I've heard they don't particularly like lemming stomachs.

It is a decent sized predator at between 53-65 cm, that's about half a meter long and a wingspan of 125-150 cm or one and a half meters. As with most birds that are active in the day, the female Snowy owls are often larger with an average weight of  2.3 kg and the males average 1.8 kg. An average adult Snowy owl can eat up to a dozen lemmings just to sustain itself.

The traditional Inuit tale tells of how
 the Snowy owl got such a flat face & short beak.

It begins with a beautiful young girl that is magically changed into a beautiful white owl with a long beak.

However, the transformation results
 in the little girl becoming so frightened
 that she flies straight into the wall of her house.

And that's why ookpiks faces are round and flat
and why they have short beaks.

In the Inuit tradition there is a story of
how the Ookpik got such a flat face & short beak.

The traditional story is the tale of how a beautiful young girl is magically changed into a owl. A white owl with a long beak. The transformation results in the girl becoming so frightened she flies into the wall of her house. And that's why ookpiks faces are round and flat and why they have short beaks.

The Owl and the Raven: An Inuit Legend

Vintage Little Golden Book 1960s
Ookpik the Arctic Owl

was probably the first book
to introduce me to ookpik
Ookpik doll & booklet 1968

The Owl and the Lemming Legend

An Inuit Story About The Ookpik

Once upon a time there lived an Inuit family in the dark north. There was a mother, a father and two children, a boy and a girl. They lived in their igloo, which they had built out of snow blocks. In the middle of the igloo there was place on the floor for the fire. There was also an opening, a hole, in the ceiling though which the smoke could escape (get out).

Because it is so cold in the Arctic it is very important that there is always a fire in the igloo. One person always has to stay in the igloo and watch the fire.

One day, it was almost spring, the parents went away to go hunting. They needed some meat to eat, and the children stayed in the igloo and watched the fire.

The children were alone in the igloo, but the fired was hot and the igloo was nice and warm. The children played and were very happy.

Suddenly they heard a sound outside. It was the sound of heavy footsteps. Mother and father could not be back. “Who is this?” asked the little boy.

Four men came into the igloo and looked at the fire. “We have no fire in our igloo.” They said.
“We have come to get your fire!” Then they quickly fetched the fire ran out of the igloo. They jumped on their dog sledge, and off they went.

When the parents came home from hunting it was very cold and dark in the igloo. The children were scared and sitting next to each other. When the father and the mother were inside the igloo they asked: “What happened to the fire?” The children told them about the four men and what had

They were all sitting close together to keep themselves warm. “What can we do?” the mother asked. “We can’t go and get the fire back,” she said to her husband. “They are four men and you and me are only two.”

Then they were quiet for some time, everyone was thinking. Suddenly the father had an idea. He stood up and went out of the igloo and called the little snowy owl.

“Dear little owl”, said the father, “will you help us to get our fire back?”

”Yes, I want to help you, but what can I do?”

”Nobody can hear you, when you fly, and you can also see very well at night.” said the Inuit
father. “Fly over to the igloo of these four bad men. They will not hear nor see you. Then fly directly through the hole in the top of the igloo and bring the fire back to us.”

“This is an excellent idea. I will try to do it.” said the owl and flew away.
The snowy owl flew through the icy night. She could see the light in the igloo from far away. Very carefully and silently she flew over the igloo and looked through the hole in the top. She saw the fire burning and the four men were sleeping on thick furs.

Light as a snowflake the little owl flew through the hole. She quietly picked up some of the fire
and flew out again. Nobody had seen her.

She went up into the night sky and flew back to the Inuit family.

The Inuit family was standing outside the igloo and waited for the snowy owl. The girl was the
first one to see the little owl. “Look!” she said. “Look, our fire is coming back. The little owl
brings the fire!”

The family was very happy again and the dogs were very happy, too. They all said “Thank you!” to the little owl.

Until today the Inuit are very happy when they see a snowy owl, because they know, that
spring will come soon.

An old Inuit story as retold and adapted after: Time Life, Lernen ist lustig, von fernen Ländern (1991)
© 2014 MU-Peter Shimon

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