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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:

Snowy owls can reach up to 27 inches in height, with a 49- to 51-inch wingspan, and can weigh between 40 and 70 ounces, making it the largest North American owl species by weight. Male snowy owls are smaller than females. The owls have smooth, rounded heads and bulky bodies. Their 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 their legs and toes. A snowy owl's bill is short, strong and sharply pointed, and its eyes are yellow, catlike and small in comparison to those of other owls.

Habitat:

Inhabit open tundra, preferring to sit near or on top of the ground in treeless, wide-open spaces. Perch on fence posts, telephone poles, hill crests and hay bales.

Range:

A nomadic species, the range of snowy owls varies depending on availability of food. Summer range stretches around the Arctic circle and includes Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, Greenland, Iceland and Russia. Some birds remain in breeding grounds all year; others migrate into the United States, northern and central Europe, Russia and China. 

Feeding:

These owls feed on small mammals like lemmings, squirrels, voles and hares and sometimes consume small birds, fish and insects. Unlike most owls, snowy owls hunt during the day by sitting very still in one spot for hours. They use their impeccable senses of hearing and sight to hone in on prey and will swallow prey whole.

Predators:

Arctic foxes, dogs, wolves and predatory birds pose danger to snowy owl nests during breeding season.

Flight:

These birds tend to stay close to the ground while in flight.

Voice:

The low, powerful, rasping calls of the snowy owl 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. When agitated, they will snap their bill and make a clacking sound.

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. The female builds nest by scraping out a shallow hole on the ground; pairs may reuse the nest site for many years. Snowy owls will aggressively defend their 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 while the 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. Snowy owls 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. Their breeding population is estimated to be 200,000 birds.
  • During “irruptions,” snowy owls can be found in the lower United States as far south as Texas and Florida.
  • 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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