6 Facts About Snowy Owls

This post is from Hugh Powell, science editor with Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Normally, snowy owls spend their summers up at the very northernmost fringe of the world, in the arctic tundra. They visit the U.S. most winters, but in low numbers. This year is one of the best in memory—they’ve been seen from Nova Scotia to the Olympic Peninsula and as far south as Missouri. Have you seen one yet? Here are a few things you might not know about this great white owl, and a video to whet your appetite.

Snowy Owls

Miriam Szabo Look for snowy owls in winter in Canada and the upper U.S.

1 They aren’t cold. Remember, any snowy owl you see this winter is about as far south as it ever goes. Snowy owls live through dark, frigid winters, and sit through minus 40 degree nights without flinching. Regardless of how cold you might be, they really aren’t fazed by a 15-degree day in the Lower 48.

2. They’re owls of the daytime—as you might expect for a bird that hails from the land of the midnight sun. Perhaps that’s why they don’t have quite as thrilling a hoot as their nocturnal kin. Instead, they make simple, hoarse whoos or excitable squawks that don’t seem to fit their regal bearing. Listen to them at our Macaulay Library site (here’s a hoot  and a squawk).

3 They eat a lot of lemmings. Snowy owls are excellent hunters, and they make the most of the Arctic’s prodigious supplies of lemmings. They pounce on them, take them on the wing, even snatch them from under the snow, finding them by sound alone if they need to. A single adult may eat 300 pounds of lemmings per year, feeding its brood of “owlets” another 1,500 lemmings before they leave home. In winter, some switch to eating ptarmigan and waterfowl. John James Audubon reportedly saw one lying on its belly and catching fish from a rock.

4 The males and females look different (don’t tell Harry Potter). As with most raptors, females are substantially bigger than males. At up to 6.5 pounds, females are the biggest owls by weight in North America. Females are also more heavily barred with black than the males, which get paler throughout their lives. An all-white Snowy Owl is pretty much always an older male (apologies to Harry Potter, but Hedwig was a male all along.)

5 Winter is the time to see them, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology can help you find them. Here’s a confession: I’ve never seen a snowy owl in real life before. But this year maybe my luck will change. By using eBird, our free online checklist program, I can check and see where other bird watchers have seen snowy owls near me. You can get your own map to the nearest snowy owl, too: Zoom in toward your hometown, and you’ll see markers showing sightings so far this month.

6 If you can’t find them outdoors, there’s always the Internet. Check out this video made by my friend Gerrit Vyn, in our Multimedia program, and spend a little quality time with these silent visitors from the great white north. (Oh, and watch the owl pairs, too, to see if you can pick out the smaller, whiter males from the bigger, darker females):

I’d love to hear your stories about seeing snowy owls in the comments!

  1. Stacy (Editors' Blog) says

    Hi Hugh! Thanks for sharing the information. I learned a couple of things about snowy owls from that! Here’s my snowy owl sighting story…

    I knew a snowy owl was in the Milwaukee area from using eBird. So I went out a couple of times with my kids, but we didn’t have any luck. Then a friend of mine (also a birder) was in town visiting. We happened to be along the Milwaukee lakefront and within five minutes of casually looking, he spotted a snowy owl out along the breakwater! We didn’t have the “good” binoculars at the time, so I quickly went home while he kept an eye on the bird. All in all, we got to show the snowy to my two kids, my best friend (not a birder) and my mom from Oklahoma. It was also the day before my birthday, so it was the perfect gift! It was pretty exciting. I wish others luck on the quest to see a snowy this winter, too!

    • margbamargba says

      HI STACY! THEY HAVE BEEN SEEN, PHOTOGRAPHED & DOCUMENTED IN SEVERAL LOCATIONS HERE IN LANCASTER CO, PA! LOCAL TV WILDLIFE EXPERT, JACK HUBLY HAS SPOKEN OF THIS ON TV & VERIVIES THIS FACT,

      • says

        Hi Hugh…..i have been photographing Snowy Owls for the past 5 years and this past winter was treated to sighting 2 at a time, 3 at a time, 6 snowies at a time and finally at the end of march along a 1/4 mile stretch of line fence 9 snowy owls approximately 50 to 60 feet apart. Over a 4 month period i must have photographed at least 20 different birds….mostly females and juveniles and 3 or 4 adult males.
        The snowy owls that i observed showed no fear of man and if you approached to just outside their comfort zone they tolerated your presence. I saw these wonderful birds actually enjoying each others company at a comfortable distance from each other but if a juvenile encroached on an adult males personal space he was driven off. I saw the juveniles engage in a pushing match and i also saw an adult male drive off younger males some of which were foolish enough to land at the base of the fence post where the larger adult male was roosting. The juvenile took the hint and flew off quickly with the adult male in pursuit. They flew up into the air where the juvenile in some danger turned and flew directly at the adult male …both with talons open, ready and highly visible to the other. At this point they both wisely broke off any further escalation of this aggressive behaviour.
        The last thing i expected to see was this behaviour from such beautiful and calm birds. I count myself as very lucky to have seen this for it was one of the highlights of this past winter up here in Bruce County, Ontario, Canada.
        Cheers….i am Dave Waddell

    • Carol says

      Many years ago, while living in Southern CA, I was driving to Mt. Palomar, when a Snowy flew directly in front of my car I was stunned! It was just that one sighting, but I have never forgotten the sight of that magnificent bird! Thank you so much for posting this article, video and photos.

  2. Peggy says

    One has been reported and photographed in Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA about a month ago…beautiful. I only wish I had been able to drive up and try to find it in person!

  3. Angi King Johnston says

    But why are there so many this year? What is driving them more southerly this year? I live on Mt Desert Island off the coast of Maine, and yes we are seeing more so far. My first assumption in this irruption is that it’s going to be a harsher winter, but I have yet to see that here… but I don’t know what it’s been up north. Just curious, and many people ask me these same questions…

  4. Larry Steeves says

    Rather surprised that we watched a nice story on the 10 PM news last night, that was talking about how these Snowy Owls had been seen alot around the Smithville Lake area, which is just a few miles north of Kansas City. They said that there had been quite a few of them spotted in that area and that it was very unusual. They expressed a great fear that the owls would probably not survive the winter. I was really confused by this because they said that they normally stay in the extreme northern and frigid weather area, so I presumed that maybe our weather here would not be quite cold enough for them to survive. Our weather here is not nearly as frigid as in the extreme northern regions, but it is pleanty cold enough that I wouldn’t think that it would be life threatening. Maybe it has something to do with them being able to find the same food source that they prefer.
    This was shown on the CBS, KCTV channel 5 news.

  5. Larry Steeves says

    I might add that they said that there were about 30 of them reportedly and that 6 or so were in a specific point near the lake. They encouraged the public to go up there and see if they could see them. They did discourage anyone trying to get very close and suggested that you use binoculars or telephoto lens on cameras.

  6. Cathy says

    I have seen a few in past years, but this winter is a good one. Christmas day I took my 83 year old dad to a couple of sites along Lake Michigan where Snowy Owls ahd been reported the day before. No luck – no owl, no owl. The next day we tried the Michigan City harbor and there was one perched on the breakwall, next to a rock that broke the wind. I set up my scope and showed this wonderful bird to several other people, including some salmon fishermen.

    A week ago, a young female appeared at Lake Monroe, just a few miles from my Bloomington home. I was fortunate enough to see it before it disappeared. The habitat wasn’t really very good.

  7. Susan B says

    Thank you for the opportunity to share: great opportunity last week within Seneca County at a shopping mall (of all places) in Junius to observe and photograph a snowy owl. This location is a good hour northwest of the Lab or Ornithology and due west of Montezuma Wildlife Refuge. Outside of a raptor center, this is the closest I’ve stood to a snowy owl in the wild: perched on a tower at 30 feet, it seemed quite comfortable with nearby pedestrian traffic.

  8. Coral Blore says

    Here in Manitoba, the snowy owls everywhere. I can’t seem to head outside the city without seeing at least one! Just the other day driving down the highway I spotted 3 in less than 1km. One sitting a top a road sign (a great photo op let me tell you!), One sitting on the railway tracks and a third sitting in a farmers field. Before this year the only place I’d seen a Snowy Owl was the zoo. Seeing them in their natural habitat is SO much better.

    2 weeks ago while making lunch in my kitchen I actually had one hunting in my back yard! It was a divebomb attack that scattered all of the birds at my feeders and caused me to screeched like a little girl…partially from shock, partially from the excitement of having a snowy owl in my tiny city backyard (we’re just on the outskirts of Winnipeg and are surrounded by farmers fields).

    Beautiful Birds!

  9. says

    Hi Peggy – funny you should mention it. I was driving west from Ithaca over the holidays and stopped off in Presque Isle especially to see that Snowy Owl. (I had seen it reported in that eBird map I linked to.) My wife and I only had about 45 minutes to look for it. Alas! We found the exact branch where the owl had been perched three days earlier, but no owl! As a consolation prize, we did get to see lots of dainty Bonaparte’s gulls, plus hundreds of scaup and a few common goldeneyes. Sometimes you have to leave something to come back for! (By the way, I was blown away at how beautiful the beaches of Presque Isle are and would love to go back.)

  10. Dixie Stordahl says

    I have spotted a snowy owl near Loring, Montana, for about a month now. Loring is in north central Montana about 18 miles from the Canadian border.

  11. Terri Talarek King says

    I learned a lot from this site about Snowy Owls! I live outside of Vincennes, Indiana, in southwestern Indiana. One was sighted not far southeast of us (I saw the photos the man took of the owl sitting on a fencepost.) I was hoping to find this on the map, and any other sightings in my area, but I can’t seem to figure out how the map works!!

  12. Anna Protsman says

    Mine is not a recent story, but a good one. I have only seen one. I was in the 4th grade at the time, this was back in 1974. My brothers and I were walking along the irrigation canal near our home. At first we thought it was a large white cat. Then as we got close we stopped and watched, it was the largest owl or bird I had ever seen! After a few seconds it took off in flight right over our heads!!! I could of reached out and touched it had I not been ducking so fast. Absolutely stunning. I have never forgot how fantastic of a sighting this was. I even knew then how special it was that we got to experience that. It was a female, and she was HUGE. This was at a ranch by Ellensburg Washington.

  13. says

    I was very fortunate to find an adult male snowy owl at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport on December 30th. I had read that the snowies tend to gravitate to the airport because it’s similar to the open tundra of their home territory. A number of owls have been reported at MSP this year. And quite a few have been reported at the airport in La Crosse, WI. Here are some photos I took of the owl on the airport taxiway.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/rburmaster/sets/72157628640126835/

    Hope to see some more of this beautiful creatures before they head back north. :)

  14. Donald Putnam says

    Haven’t seen one this year. However, when I was 6-7 years old, almost 50 years ago my father clipped one with our car as it flew across a road. We stopped and collected the injured bird and took it to my grandfather. He was a local character known widely as a moonshiner and bootlegger and had a vast knowledge of anything wild. He informed us we had hit a snowy owl and broken it’s wing, it never recovered from the injury and sadly died. This all took place in North Georgia about an hour’s drive north of Atlanta.

  15. says

    That is a great video of the Snowy Owls. I do want to add a note of caution about getting close to these owls as this will not only distract them from what they need to be doing, which is watching, listening for and hunting prey, but it will also drive their prey (like mice and snakes) away plus risk getting them mobbed by crows. This is especially important for those wanting to get photographs–the only way to get a good shot with less than a very expensive 35mm camera and lens combo is to get too close–please don’t do that. I know that no one would want to do anything that would harm these owls so everyone needs to give them plenty of space.

    This is from ebird, at the bottom of the page on Stacy’s link above:

    “An important word of caution about this striking and photogenic species–the birds we see in the states are already stressed, since they moved from locations in the north due to a lack of food. One of the southeast Wisconsin Snowy Owls in Ozaukee County was seen for a few days and then found dead by a farmer. Apparently the bird was extremely emaciated, so it likely starved to death. While very beautiful and often approachable, life for them can at times be very difficult, and keeping a good distance so as not to disturb them is the best approach. Please don’t use live mice to lure them in to roadsides for photography. Flushing a large raptor, especially a white one can catch the attention of nearby crows causing unnecessary mobbing. We want these birds to successfully over-winter and then return back to the tundra to breed next spring.”

  16. Deborah says

    SeEtta, so very true!! This is important and wise advice to pass along, especially for those who are foolish enough to be to
    close- for the sake and safety of this magnificent bird. :)

  17. Susan K says

    Countless trips to Alaska left me with several sightings of ptarmigans… a stunning bird in it’s own right … but no Snowy Owls.
    It must have been a dreadful winter in Alaska as several made their way to Detroit, Michigan of all places. Winter is lovely in Michigan and I would enjoy taking quiet walks in the woods. Birds would find refuge there and often the branches were filled with some of the most colorful species in North America. On one particular wander I came upon a magnificent Snowy. My heart skipped a beat. That was years ago … but it was a moment in time I will never forget.

  18. says

    There have been several spotted in New Jersey this winter! There is an all-white male who makes the I-78 corridor home in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. There are photographs in local papers of one at Merrill Creek Reservoir in NJ….

  19. max zamborowski says

    I took a pic of a snowy owl on top of a roof in Algonac MI. Jan. 14 2012 at 3:00 in the afternoon it was great.

  20. Sue Stutzman says

    We have been very fortunate this year to have a Snowy Owl in our area. My husband has seen her twice. Two of my grandchildren ages 4 1/2 and 2 1/2, my daughter and I have seen her once. We live in Southeast Iowa near the small town of Wellman. We were able to get some photo’s of her on a telephone pole along the roadway. This is the first Snowy Owl I have seen and was able to check it off my bird list.

  21. Alice Redfield says

    I live in Opheim Montana. We are about 10 miles from the Canadian border. We see snowy owls every year around here. But this year there are lots more of the beautiful birds! We have anywhere from the small ones to the larger ones. Some almost pure white and some with some darker markings. I look forward to seeing them every winter.

  22. says

    A friend and I visited Amherst Island in Lake Ontario on the Canadian side. We were there for 2 days and saw 7 different Snowy Owls (3 males and 4 females) spread out fairly evenly across the 12×4 mile island. Unfortunately they were all just out of range for good shots with my 500MM lens. The island is mostly grazing land and there was no snow cover, so food must be plentiful for them. We also saw 12 Red-tailed Hawks, 6 Northern Harriers, 5 male Kestrels, Merlin, Northern Shrike, Bald Eagle, 8 Short-eared Owls and 6 Rough-legged Hawks. A fun packed 2 days!

  23. Nancy Washburn-Jones says

    My father had a marina in Spring Lake Micigan.
    For several years he had Great Snowy Owls visit. I was home on one occasion I got to see one in person.
    Dad always photographed them. What a lovely memory.
    If I run across the phots I will send thenm your way.
    Love this publication!

  24. Dolores Bourisaw says

    I have photographed a snowy owl outside of Redbud, Illinois on two different days last week. The first time was at 4:30 p.m.,
    the second three days later at 7;30 a.m. Both times owl was sitting on the same post alongside the highway with an open
    field behind.

  25. Dianne Amdahl says

    I’ve seen two so far this winter. The first one I saw was sitting on top a telephone pole in south central South Dakota. Saw it
    on our way to Colo. in Dec. The second one I saw just last week. It was sitting on a little knoll in an open field, a mile and a half north of my home , in Sioux Falls, S. D. When I drove by, it turned it’s head and looked right at me. AWESOME.

  26. Rod Marr says

    I live near Vancouver, B.C. and we are fortunate enough to have many snowy owls who return every year to the marsh along the dyck in Ladner, B.C. just south of Vancouver. Every year photographers and bird watchers travel here from all over North America to see the owls.
    A friend and I took our cameras out last Friday and had a great time taking photos of the owls, many ot them perched on the drift wood within 50 feet of our position on the dyck. We counted 27 birds within a distance of 300 yds along the dyck. We got some great shots of the owls and enjoyed talking to birders from as far away as Germany who were thrilled to see the owls in the natural setting along the marsh. What a fantastic experience.

  27. Retta Mae Woodward says

    I had an experience in Alaska when I was visiting my daughter and son-in-law that I will never forget and had given me a special feeling for the snowy white owl. My son-in-law was working for the pipeline some distance south of Fairbanks and my daughter and I went out to his camp to visit him one evening. On the way back to town after dark I was driving when suddenly something came out from the trees right at us and I couldn’t avoid hitting it. At first we didn’ stop but really got to wondering what we had hit so went back and checked. My daughter got out and picked it up and it was a snowy white owl. She held it up in front of the headlights and its wingspan was as far as she could reach. We left it there but was told later that we should have taken it in to Fairband to the authorities. I wish we had known that and it still bothers me that I hit and killed such a beautiful bird.

  28. Retta Mae Woodward says

    I should have added that I live in Kansas and would love to see one here but probably won’t be ble too.

  29. Kristen Oconnor says

    I saw two of them together in a farmers field in Nampa, Id. It was so exciting, they were a block down from my neighborhood. I got my parents who are huge birders and told them to come over, they have lived all over and it was my moms first time ever seeing them, I was so glad she got to see them.

  30. Sara Blair says

    Feb 5, 2012 we were coming home after the 3rd quarter of the Superbowl and a snowy owl flew right up into our pine tree as we were pulling into our driveway. He sat up high in the tree looking out at the road. We are in a development and I was so suprised to see such a beautiful owl. We live in Mineral Ridge, OH which is close to Youngstown, OH. A beautiful sight I’ll never forget.

  31. Roberta Davis says

    HI, over the last two or three years I have seen snowy owls sitting on the telephone wires on my way to church,around 8:30-9:00am I have gotten a few pictures of them beautiful birds. I live in the Fairgrove area of Michigan it is so exciting to watch these birds..I am glad to have seen them.

  32. Karen Hagedorn says

    I had a snowy owl perched on top of my vehicle the morning of Dec. 8, 2011, 8 am, as I opened the blind. I live in Ira MI, I have photos of it. When I opened up the last blind it flew next door and landed on an old tractor tire. It stayed in the same spot until 4:30 pm. It started flying around after that and stayed in the area that I know of until 5:30 when it became too dark to see. A day I will never forget, what a beautiful sight.

  33. Saundra says

    In Dec. 2011, I drove the kids up to the bus stop and sitting on the mail box sat this beautiful snowy owl. It sat there for at least 5 min. as we just watched it we were about 20 feet away. It then flew across the road and down the hill. The kids were amazed at it they were 5 and under. Traverse City Mi

  34. says

    Hi there. Great pictures, someday I hope to be lucky and to see a Snowy Owl out in the wilds. I live in Toronto, and this past Sunday however, my wife, Jean, and I came upon a Barred Owl in Rouge National Park, near Markham, Ontario. This was the second time in six weeks that we have come upon, and filmed, an owl out in the wilds. The first was a Saw-Whet Owl. Prior to these two sightings, we had never seen an owl in its natural habitat. Needless to say, it has been an exciting six weeks. Our pictures and video of the Barred Owl sighting are posted on our blog at: http://frametoframe.ca/photo-essay-barred-owl-sighting-markham-ontario/

    Our pictures and video of the Saw-Whet Owl sighting are at: http://frametoframe.ca/photo-essay-northern-saw-whet-owl-sighting/

  35. Jane Harris says

    I live in the Milwaukee area and am listening to the first owl I have ever heard in the winter. I didn’t know it was possible! He or she continues to softly hoot away, three hoots at a time, with a prolonged pause in between. I knew the sound because I have lived in various regions of this country (and South America) and have heard owls before. It is dark out right now, so I won’t be able to see the owl. I live on a small, non-frozen pond where water fowl come throughout the winter [maybe the food the owl(s) are seeking].
    After about a dozen series of hoots, I decided to see if it might be possible that this is truly an owl I am hearing. And it is!!
    I am filled with peace and a sense of mystery as I continue to listen to this beautiful creature who has blessed me with its presence, exactly at a time in my life in which I most need to hear the owl sing.

    I will end my post so that I can more fully take in the beauty of this experience. Thank you for your website so I could learn about this amazing white, snowy owl and read others’ stories, too.

  36. Diane Conrad says

    I was able to see a Snowy Owl sitting on driftwood on Jan 19 on Chincoteague. I took a zillion pics and watched him for quite some time..He didn’t seem bothered that we were watching and taking photos. He had been there almost the entire day…was beautiful to see.

  37. Nancy says

    Here in Michigan the Grand Rapids airport, has had at least 9. News reports say that they have had to shoot them, because they might get in the way of the airplanes. So very sad that this has to happen.

  38. says

    I saw this beautiful bird last week on my deck railing just outside my bed room window in Mystic, CT. I had to look it up on the internet, I had never seen one before. I didn’t take a picture, I was afraid to move. Two days later the male came to my apple tree by the deck. What a treat!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  39. says

    We live in Cape May NJ where the temp was below -0 for quite some time last winter- there were many sightings of the owls up and down the coast along the beaches. Many people would post on Facebook the location and pictures where they would see the owls. There was a few owls that would pick a spot and stay for many days. It was my goal to actually see this magnificent creature. One Saturday morning there was one on top of a roof of a building in Cape May and we drove down to see. There was a small group gathered watching. And a man with binoculars let my girls actually see up close . It was such a wonderful memory!

  40. sharen says

    Enjoyed your informative article.

    My three friends and I spotted a Snowl Owl on Lake Huron, in Lexington, MIchigan,
    in January 2010, morning. He was sitting low, in the brush, then flew upwards. Beautiful!

    Sharen Peitzsch

  41. says

    Years ago my husband and I saw 2 snowy owls sitting in a tree along the SAVANNAH River. No one believes us but, we have our memory. It’s an odd place along the River where owls of different species like to come to. We never knew exactly why owls were often there.

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