The Snowy Owl – A Magnificent Bird Of The Arctic

snowy owl

Snowy Owl Description

Males and Females change in the range of dusky patterning on the white feathers.
The Snowy Owl, of course, is virtually white. They are purer white than predatory mammals such as the polar bears (Ursus maritimus) and Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus).

These owls can often resemble a pale rock or a lump of snow on the terrain when seen in the open. It regularly lacks ear tufts, but very compact tufts can be formed in some circumstances, perhaps most usually by the female when sitting on the nest.

The ear tufts average about 20 to 25 mm (0.79 to 0.98 in) and consist of approximately 10 small feathers.

Male: The facial disc is white and ill-defined. Eyes are brilliant yellow, rimmed by blackish eyelid margins. The waxy fleshy covering the upper beak base is dark grey and is usually hidden by dense feathering. The bill is blackish. Ear-tufts are so tiny, they are not visible.

The upperparts are plain white, including a few shady spots on the tiny ear-tufts, the alula, (a small formation located at the joint connecting the hand-wing and arm-wing of birds and is understood to be used in slow flight with high angles of attack such as landing.) and at the tips of some primaries and secondaries.

The tail plumage is almost all white, sometimes including indistinct terminal bars. Underparts are all white.

Tarsi and toes are thickly feathered white. The claws are blackish.

Snowy owl

Female: Spotted and lightly barred brown on the head and upperparts. Flight and tail feathers are faintly barred brown. Underparts are white, including brownish spotting and barring on the sides and upper breast. Juveniles are darkish greyish-brown.

Size: Length 51-68.5cm. Wingspan 137-164cm. The tail expansion of 206-241mm. Weight 1134-2000g. Females are larger and heavier than males.

Snowy Owl Characteristics

Snowy Owls are busy during the daytime, from dawn to dusk. They have a straight, strong, and constant flight with deliberate, robust downstrokes and quick upstrokes.

They perform short flights, close to the ground, perch to perch, and perches typically on the ground or a low post. Throughout hot weather, they can regulate their own body temperatures by panting and expanding their wings. Snowy Owls are very hostile when defending their nest.

Snowy owl
Flying canadian snowy owl. Quebec. Canada. North america. (photo by: alberto ghizzi panizza/reda&co/universal images group via getty images)

Snowy Owl Call & Song

The Snowy Owl is practically silent during non-breeding periods. The male’s typical call is a loud, shrill, grating bark, while the female has a comparable higher-pitched call.

During the breeding period, males have a loud, roaring “hoo, hoo” given as a territorial display or mating call. Females seldom hoot. Its warning call is a guttural “krufff-guh-guh-guk”. When excited it may issue a loud “hooo-uh, hooo-uh, hooo-uh, wuh-wuh-wuh”. Other noises are dog-like barks, rattling cackles, hissing, shrieks and bill-snapping.

Recorded by Gerrit Vyn | Macaulay Library

Snowy Owl Hunting & Diet

Most hunting is performed in the “sit and wait” technique. These Owls are highly active during the daytime, although they may hunt at nighttime as well.

Prey is seized on the ground, in the air, or seized off water bodies’ surface. When hunting snowshoe hares, a Snowy Owl will sink its talons into the spine and back flap until the hare is weakened.

The Owl will then snap its neck with its beak. Snowy Owls has been identified to raid traplines for captured animals and bait and learn to follow traplines periodically. They also seize fish with their talons.

Small prey up to little hares is consumed whole, while larger prey is transported away and torn into large pieces. Small young are fed boneless and furless pieces. Large prey is held in the Owl’s talons, with prey like lemmings being carried in the beak.

Snowy owl

Snowy Owls are primarily dependent on lemmings and voles during most of their Arctic and wintering area. When this prey is scarce, they are an opportunistic hunter and feeder. They will take a wide variety of small mammals and birds.

Some mammal prey comprises mice, hares, muskrats, marmots, rabbits, squirrels, prairie dogs, rats, moles, and entrapped furbearers.

Bird prey comprises ptarmigan, ducks, shorebirds, geese, Ring-necked Pheasants, grouse, American Cootes, Gresse, gulls, songbirds, and short-eared owls. Snowy Owls will also take fish and corpses.

Some nesting Owls change from lemmings and voles to young ptarmigan when they become readily available.

Snowy Owls do not hunt close to their nests, so other birds, including the Snow Geese, often nest nearby to benefit from the Owls running off predators such as foxes.

Snowy Owls produce large, rough-looking round pellets, (What is an owl pellet? – with various bones, feathers, and fur showing.

They are regularly expelled at common roosting sites, and large numbers of pellets can be found in one spot. When large prey is consumed in small pieces with little roughage, pellets will not be created.

Snowy owl

Snowy Owl Breeding & Reproduction

Courtship behaviour can occur in midwinter through March and April, well off from breeding ranges. Males will fly in waving, moth-like flight when females are noticeable.

On the ground, males will bow, fluff feathers, and strut about with wings expanded and dragging on the ground. Males kill and present prey in hoards to impress females, often feeding the female.

The Snowy Owl nests virtually exclusively on the ground. The female builds a shallow scrape with her talons on top of a high rise, knoll, or boulder. Deserted eagle nests and gravel bars are used irregularly.

Nests may be lined with scraps of plants and Owl feathers. Nest sites need to be near good hunting areas, be snow-free, and hold a good view of the surroundings.

There is limited breeding site-faithfulness within years or mates in some breeding domains. Still, in other areas, a pair of Owls may nest in the same place for several years.

Territories neighbouring nests range from 1.5 to 6.5 square kilometres and overlap with other owl pairs and mating partners.

Breeding happens in May, Clutch and brood sizes are profoundly reliant on food supply. Snowy Owls may not nest at all through years of low lemming numbers.

Clutch sizes mostly range from 5 to 8 white eggs but perhaps as many as 14 eggs through high lemming years. They are laid at around 2-day intervals and average about 57 x 45 mm.

The female incubates, while the male returns her food and defends the nest. Eggs hatch in 32-34 days at two-day periods, leading to large age variations in nests with big clutch sizes.

The young snow owls are wrapped in white down. The juveniles begin to leave the nest after around 25 days, well before they can fly. They are fledged at 50 to 60 days. Both parents nurture and tend the young, and are fiercely guarding and may attack trespassers up to 1 kilometre from the nest.

Nestling Owls need about 2 lemmings per day. A family of Snowy Owls may eat as many as 1,500 lemmings before the young separate. Snowy Owls are single brooded and likely do not lay replacement clutches of eggs if their first clutch fails.

Snowy owl

Almost 100% of nesting success can be accomplished during years of good vole numbers.

Numbers fluctuate wildly, regularly in accord with lemming and vole numbers. For instance, Banks Island may have 15,000 to 20,000 Snowy Owls through good lemming years and only 2,000 through low lemming years with densities varying from 1 Owl per 2.6 square kilometres in good lemming years to 1 Owl per 26 square kilometres in low lemming years.

How Long Do Snowy Owls Live For?

Snowy Owls can live to least 9.5 years in the wild and 35 years in captivity. Natural predators are few – Arctic foxes and wolves prey upon snow owls on their tundra breeding areas. At the same time, skuas and jaegers may steal their eggs or chicks.

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Snowy Owl Habitat – Where the Owl Is Found

The Snowy Owl is a bird of Arctic tundra or open grasslands and pastures. They rarely venture into forested regions.

They appear along lakeshores, marshes, coastlines and even roost on structures in cities and towns during southward migrations and movements.

In the Arctic, they regularly roost on pingaluks (rises in the tundra) and breed from low valley platforms up to mountain slopes and plateaus over 1000m elevation.

When they spend the winter in a particular place in the Arctic, they visit wind-swept tundra with little snow or ice buildup. At more southern latitudes they mostly visit agricultural areas.

Snowy owl habitat

Snowy Owl Distribution

Circumpolar – Arctic sections of the old and new worlds.

In North America, Snowy Owls reproduce in the western Aleutian Islands. North Alaska, north Yukon, and Prince Patrick and north Ellesmere islands south to westerly coastal Alaska, northern Mackenzie, south Keewatin, the farthest northeastern Manitoba, Southampton and Belcher isles, northern Quebec and northern Labrador.

The Snowy Owl is extremely nomadic. Every 3-5 years, Snowy Owls’ mass migrations occur into southern Canada and the northern United States. It was believed this was due to drops in vole populations.

Still, later study suggests that it is in response to highly prosperous breeding seasons. These irruptions are highly unpredictable. Adult females stay farthest north while juvenile males move the most distant south through these incursions.

Snowy owl

Snowy Owl Environmental Status

Locally plentiful during good breeding years, limited at some locations during other seasons. Globally classified as Vulnerable by Birdlife International.

People also ask

What do Snowy Owls Eat?

Do snowy owls eat rats?

This robust bird relies principally on lemmings and other rodents for food. They will also eat tiny mammals and birds such as meadow voles and deer mice but will hunt larger prey when necessary. Some of the larger mammal prey comprises mice, hares, marmots, muskrats, squirrels, rabbits, prairie dogs, moles and rats.

Where do snowy owls live?

The aptly titled Snowy Owl is primarily a circumpolar species, which means that these owls live and nest in the far north regions throughout the North Pole. In the non-breeding period, this species can also be located in southern Canada and the northern United States and portions of Asia and Europe.

Snowy owl

How many snowy owls are left?

In the most up-to-date Red List of Threatened Species, issued last December, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) placed the snowy Owl’s status, for the first time, as “vulnerable,” following a study that showed the adult population had declined to 28,000, dropping from 200,000 in 2013.

Are snowy owls dangerous?

Snowy Owls Are Threatening in Self-Defense

Snowy owls can be offensive when protecting their territory or against another owl species; they will dive-bomb people, especially in nesting grounds, and have been recognised to even charge Arctic wolves. They are most territorial throughout the breeding season.

Snowy owl

Why are snowy owls disappearing?

It is now calculated that the global population could fall as low as 7,000 (or perhaps even 5,000) pairs in poor or low food years. Also, Snowy Owls may be experiencing a high population drop due to illegal hunting, and accidents with vehicles and power lines.

Further Reading

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