I’ll be honest. I initially preferred the image of that dashing golden eagle glaring back over his left shoulder. Several of us here at the Canadian Geographic headquarters expected one of these larger, fiercer raptors to rule the roost. One of the tenets of designing wildlife magazine covers is that top predators get noticed.

Sometimes, however, we encounter very reasonable exceptions to the rules. That’s why we ask our readers to vote. (As regular Canadian Geographic followers know, in advance of each issue’s publication we solicit your feedback to help us choose our cover image — or in this case, images. Our special collector’s editions feature both front and back cover-art.)

Even added together, the eagles on cover options one and two (12 and 18 per cent of votes) could not beat either the snowy owl (34 per cent) or the pair of cross-beaked northern gannets on cover four (36 per cent!). The snowy, of course, is more in line with that “birds of prey sell” guideline, but it’s also simply an arresting, dynamic action shot. Though the owl’s nearly 1½-metre-long wings are contracted and its body is tilted in agile flight, its sharp yellow eyes are dead level and clapped on the photographer — or magazine reader or passerby.

The snowy owl’s popularity shouldn’t surprise us, either. Canadian Geographic’s National Bird Project, running since January, has attracted tens of thousands of Canadians, eager to vote for their choice for official national bird of Canada and to tell us why. The snowy is firmly in second place (behind the honourable loon, of course) — a testament to the popularity of this mysterious, certainly regal bird that many of us proudly associate with our North. Read more about the mission to find an official avian emblem for Canada in this special issue, or vote and submit an essay at nationalbird.cangeo.ca.

The northern gannet, meanwhile, does not appear in the National Bird Project. The species has only six established breeding colonies in all of North America, three in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and three along Newfoundland and Labrador’s coast.

But the image of a pair of these seabirds in their classic “billing” pose (which could be courtship, a simple greeting or even intimidation) is no less striking than the airborne owl. Composition-wise it’s excellent, says magazine photo editor Jessica Finn — the symmetry of the birds is eye-catching, and there’s vivid contrast between the subjects and the calming blue background of a blurred-out ocean, not to mention the design team’s clever placement of the cover lines, which doesn’t detract from the gannets themselves.

If you don’t already receive our cover vote email but want to, simply click here and sign up.