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Snowy Owl

Bubo scandiacus

The largest of all North American owl species, the snowy owl can captivate even non-birders’ attention. (minette_layne/Flickr)
The largest of all North American owl species, the snowy owl can captivate even non-birders’ attention. (minette_layne/Flickr)

Also known as the Arctic owl or great white owl, the snowy owl has white feathers with black and brown markings. It weighs between 40 and 70 ounces, making it the largest North American owl species by weight.

Appearance:

  • Can reach up to 27 inches in height, with 49- to 51-inch wingspan
  • Can weigh between 40 and 70 ounces, making it the largest North American owl species by weight
  • Males are smaller than females
  • Smooth, rounded head and bulky body
  • Feathers are white with varying degrees of black and brown markings; females tend to have more markings, while males are a paler white
  • Thick feathers cover legs and toes
  • Bill is short, strong and sharply pointed
  • Eyes are yellow, catlike and small in comparison to those of other owls

Habitat:

  • A nomadic species, range varies depending on availability of food
  • Summer range stretches around the Arctic circle and includes Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, Greenland, Iceland and Russia
  • While some birds remain in breeding grounds all year, others migrate into the United States, northern and central Europe, Russia and China
  • During “irruptions,” snowy owls can be found in the lower United States as far south as Texas and Florida

Range:

  • Inhabits open tundra, preferring to sit near or on top of the ground in treeless, wide-open spaces
  • Will perch on fence posts, telephone poles, hill crests and hay bales

Feeding:

  • Feeds on small mammals like lemmings, squirrels, voles and hairs
  • Sometimes consumes small birds, fish and insects
  • Unlike most owls, snowy owls hunt during the day by sitting very still in one spot for hours
  • Use impeccable senses of hearing and sight to hone in on prey
  • Swallow prey whole

Predators:

  • Arctic foxes, dogs, wolves and predatory birds pose danger to nests during breeding season

Flight:

  • Tends to stay close to the ground while in flight

Voice:

  • Low, powerful, rasping calls can be heard up to seven miles away on the tundra
  • Hoots are given two at a time, but can include up to six in a series
  • Will snap bill and make clacking sound when agitated

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

  • Breeding occurs between May and September
  • To attract a mate, the male flies into the air with prey in his bill or talons before descending to the ground, dropping the prey, lowering his head and fanning his tail as a female approaches
  • Female builds nest by scraping out a shallow hole on the ground; pairs may reuse the nest site for many years
  • Will aggressively defend nests against predators
  • Clutch size depends on the availability of food; three to five eggs are common when food is scarce, while seven to 11 eggs are common when food is plentiful
  • Females incubate eggs for 32 days
  • Male provides food for female and young
  • Young leave the nest about 25 days after hatching, but are not able to fly until about 50 days after hatching; parents continue to feed them for about 5 weeks after they leave the nest
  • Can live for 10 years or more in the wild and 28 years in captivity

Other Facts:

  • An adult snowy owl can eat three to five lemmings each day.
  • Because snowy owls have such vast territories, it’s difficult to calculate their population size. The breeding population is estimated to be 200,000 birds.
  • The most famous snowy owl that we know of is Hedwig, the letter carrier and companion of the fictional wizard Harry Potter.

Sources and Additional Information:




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