Snowy owl

August 19, 2022 // 14 minutes read

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snowy owl

The snowy owl is a member of the true owl family better known as Strigidae. This gorgeous bird is known by a number of names including Arctic fowl, white owl, and polar owl. It’s large, white, and a relatively heavy member of the owl species.

For the most part, you’ll find this owl in their native Arctic regions. They live in North America and the Palearctic. As far as breeding is concerned, this typically takes place on the tundra. When compared to other extant owls, this creature has unique lifestyle and habitat adaptations.

Right now, I’d like to tell you important facts and other common information that you may or may not already know about the snowy owl. I’m going to discuss a wide range of topics that include the following info:

  • Common places for birdwatchers to see snowy owls
  • A full discussion of their migratory patterns
  • Their nesting habits and behaviors
  • Snowy owl identifying characteristics
  • Snowy owl feeding preferences and diet
  • and so much more

Does this seem appealing? To find out more about these majestic creatures, read below to learn the facts about snowy owls.

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Snowy owl facts

  • Common Name: Snowy Owl
  • Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Scientific Family: Strigidae
  • Life Span: 9.5-10 years
  • Size: 20.7 to 25.2 inches
  • Wingspan: 46 to 65 inches
  • Weight: 46.4 to 88.0 oz
  • Conservation status: Vulnerable

Snowy owl: how-to identify

The best way to identify a snowy owl is to realize that these birds are mostly white in color. But white isn’t the only color that dominates their features. They have various markings of brown or black that can be found on their wings and body.

Other identifying features differ between male and female snowy owls. I’ll share further information about the differences below.

Differences Between Male & Female

As far as mail snowy owls are concerned, they are the really bright white diversions of this bird species. They have large white plumage and their feathers are a much purer white color when compared to their female counterparts.

The males have other identifying features as well. One of the big differences between males and females is that the older the male polar owl gets, the whiter his feathers and plumage become.

The female snowy owls have more brown and black spots in extensive flecks on their wings and body. These flecks of color give female polar owls much more of a salt and pepper look and appearance.

Lastly, both male and female snowy owls have yellow eyes. 

Fun fact: yellow eyes signify that these owls tend to remain active in the day and sleep at night, which is the opposite of most owls who remain active at night and sleep during the day.

Some common owls with yellow eyes include:

  • Great Horned Owl
  • Snowy Owl
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Great Gray Owl
  • Short-Eared Owl
  • Northern Saw-Whet Owl
snowy owl
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Related article: Barn Owl: Bird Identification, Habits, Facts, Nesting

Differences In Summer Plumage vs Winter Plumage

Since this bird remains in cold environments, they really do not have a reason to change colors throughout the year. Their feathers remain white all year long.

Why? Their white feathers provide them with a major advantage. Believe it or not, by having reflective white feathers, the white color technically acts as a beacon to other animals and competitors. Their weight reflection signals that other animals are reaching the edge of their territory and they should steer clear.

Where You’ll See A Snowy Owl

Many of our readers enjoy viewing these creatures in the wild. Yet, their migrations vary tremendously, but they tend to stick to the same colder regions nonetheless.

The North American snowy owls tend to spend their winters in southeastern Canada in North America. In the United States, they tend to stick to New England states and the upper Great Lake states near Canada.

During the winter in the United States, the number of these owls in the region will peak periodically. Many people attribute this to the lemming cycles taking place farther in the North in Canada.

Snowy owl bird migration

Their migrations encompass extreme variables. But it’s important to know that most of the time when you see them in the lower 48 states, they will be there during an irruption.

What is an irruption? It’s “An irruptive migrant is a species that usually migrates short distances at the most, but occasionally moves far south in very large numbers. The reason for these unique migrations is not straightforward, and researchers have found that the causes vary with the species.”

Something will happen to cause this species to migrate into the lower 48 states from time to time, but it isn’t a regular occurrence. 

More often than not, owl irruptions happen because they are experiencing a lack of food. In other cases, they may be experiencing such an abundance of food during the winter that they are acting more productively because of the extra fuel and energy available to them.

snowy owl in the forest
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Snowy owl diet

The most important thing to know about these owls is that they are carnivores. They feed on small mammals and a wide variety of different small animals. Some of their favorite small animals to prey on include deer mice, meadow voles, gophers, and lemmings.

They are relatively aggressive creatures and they will also attack larger prey when they have an advantage. They have been known to feast on moles, rats, rabbits, prairie dogs, marmots, raccoons, muskrats, squirrels, and hares. 

To all the folks with bird feeders, I regretfully inform you that they aren’t going to visit your feeders anytime soon. They like to hunt and they are carnivorous mammals as mentioned above.

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Snowy owl nesting

  • Clutch Size: 3-11 eggs
  • # of Broods: 1 brood
  • Incubation Period: 32 days
  • Nestling period: 18-25 days
  • Egg Description: White

During nesting, the female snowy owl is the partner to build the nest. She accomplishes this by scraping out a hole or hollow on the ground. She will shape this depression by squeezing her body into the hole. 

It takes a few days for female snowy owls to create their nest. Unlike many other birds, these owls will come back to this nest site for many years and reuse the nest that the female created.

When snowy owls are hatched, they are born wet and blind. It takes roughly 5 days for these owls to finally open their eyes after birth. These beautiful little owls are snowy white fluff balls of soft downy feathers just hours after being born and they are very beautiful creatures.

Typically speaking, a female snowy owl will produce anywhere from 3-11 eggs and have one brood per season. The incubation period takes roughly 32 days and the overall nesting. Takes anywhere from 18 to 25 days in total before the birds finally hatched.

Snowy owl eggs are white in color. They have no other distinguishing marks or features.

Snowy owl behavior

The snowy owl lives a very territorial and solitary life, so it doesn’t tend to socialize with other birds including the birds in its own species. 

Male snowy owls are expected to defend their territory and they certainly will. This is very true during breeding season when the female snowy owl is incubating her future hatchlings.

Snowy owls tend to stick to smaller territories when possible. This usually happens when they have plenty of food available within a small territory. They would prefer to hunt in a smaller area whenever it’s possible.

On the other hand, if there isn’t too much food available for these beautiful and majestic creatures, they will certainly expand their territory into a much larger area. Female snowy owls are even known to defend their hunting territories during the winter when food is most scarce.

Snowy owls are not aquatic birds, so when they finally do take a bath they tend to do so in an effort to keep their feathers clean. At first, a snowy owl will approach the water and dunk her face to wash it off. 

Eventually, the snowy owl will submerge its entire body into the bath and shake its feathers up and down to properly clean itself off. After it’s completely clean, the owl will shake out its entire body to remove any excess water before retreating to dryland once again.

How-to attract snowy owls

If you live in New England or the upper Great Lakes states, your best bet at seeing snowy owls in the wild is during the afternoon. 

Experts say that it’s probably best to stay 1000 feet away from these creatures because they’ll begin to get nervous at closer distances. But at the same time, you may be able to stay 100 feet away from them without scaring them off. It’s up to you to effectively test the limits and hopefully, you will not scare off the owl in the process.

close up of a snowy owl
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Snowy owl threats

The snowy owl is currently classified with a Vulnerable (VU) conservation status.

What does this mean? Unfortunately, it means the snowy owl is at an extremely high risk of becoming extinct in the wild. This is an endangered species and its likelihood of continued survival is in imminent danger.

Snowy owl fun & interesting facts

  • Snowy owls possess a tremendous number of feathers. They need these feathers to act as insulation to keep them warm while living in Arctic temperatures.
  • Snowy owls have bristles on their beaks. These bristles are there to help them sense objects when they are nearby. Their beaks are hooked to easily tear flash and grip prey.
  • Snowy owls have the ability to swallow the smallest variety of their prey whole. They will often swallow mice, voles, and lemmings entirely. They also eat seabirds, ducks, and Arctic hares.
  • Female snowy owls remain with their young after they are hatched. The males are hunters during this time and they bring the food to the females to feed it to the owlets.
  • The average wingspan of a snowy owl is 4-5 feet. They have powerful wings that give them the ability to quickly sneak up on their prey as silently as possible.
  • Male snowy owls have feathers that are nearly completely white. Female polar owls, on the other hand, have dark salt-and-pepper flecks within their white plumage.
  • Snowy owls are forced to hunt during the daylight in the Arctic summer. Many owls are nocturnal creatures yet snowy owls are considered diurnal.

Snowy owl FAQ

Where does the Snowy owl live?

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the snowy owl got its name because it’s a circumpolar species. What does this mean? It means that it lives in the areas around the North Pole that are the farthest northern regions.

During the non-breeding season, the snowy owl species will migrate. It’s often found in the southernmost portions of Canada and the northernmost portions of the United States. The snowy owl is also found in the colder parts of Europe and Asia as well.

How does the Snowy owl adapt to the tundra?

The snowy owl is capable of adapting to the Arctic tundra because of its plumage and body type. This owl has a round body, which gives it the ability to draw in and maintain its body heat.

The snowy owl can also adapt to the cold temperatures in the tundra because of its plumage. The plumage is very thick, which helps to keep the cold weather and frigid temperatures at bay.

This owl is also different from the majority of other birds. The legs of most birds are bare. The snowy owl, on the other hand, has feathers keeping its feet and legs covered, which provides excellent insulation from the wind and cold.

How rare is a Snowy owl?

As you’ve undoubtedly already imagined, the snowy owl is a rare bird indeed. At current estimates, there are only 30,000 snowy owls in existence throughout the world. It’s a rare gift to see this gorgeous species out in its native habitat in the wild.

Even more extraordinary is finding one in an urban setting. This is incredibly rare because the majority of snowy owls are found in remote locations within the Arctic.

snowy owl sitting in snow
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What does a Snowy owl eat?

Snowy owls are known for eating a wide variety of food out on the Arctic tundra. They are efficient predators that like to hunt in the brush or the short grass. While hunting, their prey includes birds, rodents, lemmings, and voles.

More often than not, the snowy owl will spend its time in the wild tundra hunting for small game. Lemmings are the largest source of food in their diet. They also eat seabirds, ducks, mice, and Arctic hares as well.

What does a Snowy owl sound like?

The snowy owl has a very powerful voice. Both males and females can hoot by making a low and powerful rasping noise. This hoot particularly comes from the males, but the females also make this sound as well. 

More often than not, this hooting sound is made two at a time. Yet, the snowy owl will also make as many as six hoots in a row. It can be heard as far as 7 miles away on the Arctic tundra. Many other owls will answer the hoot of the snowy owl by making their own hoots in return.

What is the life cycle of a Snowy owl?

After hatching, the snowy owl will remain with its parents in the nest for roughly 25 days. Afterward, it will leave the nest but still remain close to its parents, who will continue feeding it for the next five weeks upon leaving the nest.

It usually takes a snowy owl hatchling about 50 days to begin flying. In the wild, snowy owls will live for about 10 years or longer. In captivity, the snowy owl is known to live for as many as 28 years.

When do Snowy owls migrate?

It is difficult to predict the migration patterns of the snowy owl, but it’s important to know that it is a migratory bird. It’s different because it doesn’t fly south in the fall or North in the spring. It only seems to migrate whenever its food sources are becoming scarcer.

We do know that roughly every four years or more, the snowy owl will fly south. It will spend its time wintering in the northern part of the US in the winter during these migratory excursions.

snowy owl flying with talons out
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When does the Snowy owl mate?

First off, I’d like to point out that snowy owls are monogamous creatures. One male snowy owl will continue to mate with the same female throughout its life. Yet there are always exceptions to the rule. Occasionally, there will come a time when two female snowy owls will breed with the same male if there is plenty of food available.

Breeding doesn’t begin until late winter. During the late winter, the male will take the necessary steps to attract a mate. The mating partners then form in late April or early spring on their breeding ground. Or, they could potentially form earlier on their wintering ground.

When do Snowy owls sleep?

Like many owls, the snowy owl tends to sleep during the day and it hunts at night. Nevertheless, in the summertime, this owl is also quite active during the day, but the majority of its activity takes place at night.

While sleeping, the snowy owl seems to use whatever it can for a place to rest. It will sleep inside buildings, on fences, on top of rocks or mounds, or it will even sleep on the ground. It doesn’t seem to be very particular about where it sleeps.

Snowy owl related species in this family

  • Western Screech-Owl
  • Eastern Screech-Owl
  • Northern Hawk Owl
  • Elf Owl
  • Northern Pygmy-Owl
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Great Gray Owl
  • Short-Eared Owl
  • Long-Eared Owl
  • Northern Saw-Whet Owl
  • Boreal Owl
  • Spotted Owl
  • Barred Owl
  • Flammulated Owl
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