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What is a Snowy Owl?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

A snowy owl is a type of owl often found in the northernmost reaches of the United States (US), as well as Canada and northern European areas. Named for both its appearance and the types of climates it frequents, snowy owls are fairly heavy birds with thick plumage that allows them to live in cold regions, even within the Arctic Circle. Male snowy owls are typically much whiter in color, with typically only a few bands of dark color on their bodies, while females are often more heavily banded with dark browns or grays.

The snowy owl was classified by the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaus, and is technically referred to as Bubo scandiacus, though one may also be referred to as a “great white owl,” “arctic owl,” or “ghost owl.” Snowy owls are typically found in northern regions, though they can migrate over a fairly large distance and often come into northern areas of the US such as New York during winter months when they are not breeding. During the summer, when snowy owls breed, they tend to remain farther north in areas such as Canada. The snowy owl is the official bird of Quebec.

Male snowy owls are generally white.
Male snowy owls are generally white.

Though many types of owls are nocturnal creatures, the snowy owl is actually diurnal and typically is active and hunts during daylight hours. They typically hunt using a “sit and wait” method, in which a snowy owl will remain mostly motionless and silent while watching for an opportunity to strike out against prey. Snowy owls typically build their nests at ground level, though they prefer to find rises or mounds that allow them to have an advantageous view of the surrounding area.

Snowy owls hunt during daylight hours.
Snowy owls hunt during daylight hours.

Summer is the usual mating season for snowy owls, and males will often begin courtship of females in the early months of the year. Snowy owl courtship typically involves the male walking or strutting about on the ground, spreading his wings and ruffling his feathers to demonstrate his worthiness. The male will often also hunt a great deal and may present his kills to the female to display his ability to provide food for potential young. He may even feed his intended female mate.

Snowy owl females are often more heavily banded with dark browns or grays.
Snowy owl females are often more heavily banded with dark browns or grays.

Snowy owl eggs are laid typically around the month of May, and a clutch will often consist of around five to eight eggs. This amount often depends on available food, with areas of greater food sources often being marked by higher numbers of eggs in a nest. The eggs are typically kept warm by the female, while the male guards the nest against predators.

Both the male and female snowy owl will work together, however, to keep predators away from the nest and will often use coordinated efforts to fight off other birds of prey, foxes, and even wolves. Baby snowy owls typically hatch about five weeks after the eggs are laid, and are raised by both parents. Snowy owls can usually live at least nine years in the wild, though they can live for more than 30 years in captivity.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is unique about the Snowy Owl's appearance?

The Snowy Owl is renowned for its striking white plumage, which provides excellent camouflage in its Arctic habitat. Males can be almost pure white, while females typically have more flecks of black or brown. Their large, round heads and yellow eyes are distinctive, making them one of the most recognizable owl species.

Where can Snowy Owls be found geographically?

Snowy Owls breed in the Arctic tundra of the northernmost stretches of North America, Europe, and Asia. During winter, they can migrate southward and are often found in Canada, the northern United States, and sometimes as far south as the northern regions of Eurasia. Their habitat choice is often influenced by the availability of prey.

What does the Snowy Owl primarily feed on?

Snowy Owls are carnivorous and have a diet that primarily consists of small mammals. Lemmings are a staple, and a single owl can consume up to 1,600 lemmings in a year, according to the National Audubon Society. They also hunt other rodents, birds, and fish, showcasing their adaptability as predators.

How do Snowy Owls adapt to their Arctic environment?

Snowy Owls have several adaptations for Arctic living. Their dense feathering, including feathered feet, helps insulate against frigid temperatures. They have keen eyesight and hearing to locate prey under snow. Additionally, they can store extra fat and are nomadic, moving to areas with abundant food sources to survive the harsh winters.

Are Snowy Owls endangered or threatened?

As of my knowledge cutoff in 2023, Snowy Owls are not considered endangered, but they are listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Factors such as climate change and habitat disturbance pose threats to their population, necessitating ongoing conservation efforts to monitor and protect this species.

How do Snowy Owls behave during breeding season?

During the breeding season, Snowy Owls nest on the ground, making shallow scrapes in the tundra. They can be fiercely territorial and protective of their nesting sites. Females typically lay 3-11 eggs, with the number often depending on the availability of food, and both parents are involved in rearing the young.

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    • Male snowy owls are generally white.
      By: Bill Bouton
      Male snowy owls are generally white.
    • Snowy owls hunt during daylight hours.
      By: David Hemmings -- NaturesPhotoAdventures
      Snowy owls hunt during daylight hours.
    • Snowy owl females are often more heavily banded with dark browns or grays.
      By: Frank Vassen
      Snowy owl females are often more heavily banded with dark browns or grays.