The male snowy owl is instantly recognizable as their body is covered with white feathers. These feature only faint patterns of black or off-grey. Due to their cold habitat these owls have feathers across much of the beak and right down their toes. The female snowy owl is recognizable from males due to being substantially larger and their feathers featuring black spots that help her blend in with the rocks on which they nest.
Their head is round and does not feature the ear tufts which other owls have. The eyes are large yellow circles. At the base of the body is a relatively large tail which is fan shaped.
An average snowy owl is 52-71cm (20.5-28in) tall and weighs 1-2.5kg (2.25-5.5lbs). Their wingspan is 126-145cm (49.6-57.1in).
The snowy owl is a carnivore. Their main food source is the lemming. In some areas these can form their entire diet. They will also eat fish, mammals such as rabbits, hares, voles and squirrels and birds such as geese, ducks and songbirds. On occasion they will also eat carrion.
Prey is swallowed whole. Once this is swallowed they will cough up a pellet which includes the bones, fur or feathers.
To hunt they will spend much of their time sitting still and using their incredible eyesight to spot prey. Once these are spotted they will swoop on to them almost silently.
Wild 10 years
Captive 30 years
— AD —
The Snowy Owl is found around the Arctic Circle. They are found throughout this area with resident populations living from Scandinavia in to Russia, Canada, Denmark and the state of Alaska in the US. On a rare occasion breeding pairs have settled in the United Kingdom and Iceland.
Throughout winter they will move south and can be found in portions of the United States of America along with Europe and Asia.
Snowy owls are found in open tundras, lowland grasslands and coastal fields for most of the year. During Winter they will move in to marshes, dunes, prairies and fields.
Breeding takes place in May. Their breeding cycle is tied to the population of lemmings. When they are in large numbers many snowy owls will breed. When the lemming population is low the population of snowy owls will fall.
Males will attempt to attract a mate by flying up to her carrying a lemming. They maintain a territory which they defend by hooting to ward off other males. Typically they are monogamous but in years of extreme food abundance males have been observed mating with multiple females.
A female will form a nest on top of a boulder, hillock or small cliff. This allows them to scan their surroundings for threats while incubating the eggs. Their nest is a simple small scrape in to the ground.
In to this nest she deposits 3-13 eggs. These are incubated for 32-34 days. At hatching the chicks weigh 45g (1.5oz).
Young start to leave the nest as early as 3 weeks old with flight first achieved at 7 weeks old. They will continue to receive care from their parents till 9-10 weeks old.
Sexual maturity is reached at 2 years old.
The snowy owl is typically silent though they can make a horse croak or a whistle. These are primarily used during the breeding season.
Snowy owls maintain a home range for breeding. During winter though they are nomadic and travel south. They may move as far south as Florida in times where food is scarce.
In flight they remain close to the ground. Most of their activity occurs at dusk and dawn.
Predators and Threats
Snowy owls face few natural predators. They are preyed upon by foxes and wolves. Gulls will come and raid their nest for eggs or chicks.
Humans hunt them for food along with their feathers and claws. They are also indirectly affected through electrocution and vehicle strikes. Climate change has changed the onset of spring and as such reduced the availability of prey.
The snowy owls travel South in the winter and when they gather in towns it is often an interesting event which is reported on by the media.
Public Domain, USFWS
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Ambrose, J., 2015. Wildlife Of The World. 1st ed. London: Dorling Kindersley.
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Available at: <https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Snowy_Owl/id> [Accessed 5 June 2020].
Aviary.org. 2020. The National Aviary – Snowy Owl (Bubo Scandiacus). [online] Available at:
<https://www.aviary.org/animals/snowy-owl> [Accessed 5 June 2020].
BirdLife International. 2017. Bubo scandiacus (errata version published in 2018). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T22689055A127837214. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017 3.RLTS.T22689055A119342767.en. Downloaded on 05 June 2020.