Get to Know Snowy Owls and Where to Find Them
Find out where snowy owls live, what they look like, what they eat, how to spot them, why they're often found near airports and more.
To see a snowy owl in person is a memorable experience that lasts a lifetime. Adventurous birders love the thrill of discovering a snowy—and it takes only one glance to understand why this owl species is so special. Thanks to research being done by Project SNOWstorm and others, we now know more about snowy owls and their habits than ever before.
“Why study them? I mean, just look at them!” says Scott Weidensaul, one of the founders and researchers at Project SNOWstorm. “They’re big and beautiful and charismatic. They are one of the most entrancing and intriguing owls in the world.”
Scott continues, “A friend of mine likes to say, ‘Regardless of what part of the snowy owl’s life history you’re talking about, it didn’t read the rule book.’”
In celebration of this beautiful bird, here are answers to some of your biggest questions about snowy owls. And check out these 6 fascinating facts about snowy owls, too!
Bob KothenbeutelWhere Do Snowy Owls Live?
Snowy owls are common year-round in the Arctic on the open tundra. They fly south throughout Canada in winter. The best time to see a snowy owl in the lower 48 states is during an irruption. This can happen in winter when the owls unexpectedly travel farther south than normal, usually into the northern U.S. But they’ve been spotted as far south as Florida during a once-in-a-lifetime mega-irruption.
Surprisingly, these movements are actually not connected to a lack of food. Scientists have observed that irruptions occur in winters after lemmings and voles are plentiful in the snowy owls’ tundra breeding grounds, leading to a boom in their population.
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What Do Snowy Owls Look Like?
Featuring unique markings, which vary widely in color from brown to black and in shape from bars to spots, snowy owls are best known for their white plumage and feline-looking yellow eyes.
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Snowy Owl Size and Wingspan
These birds are large and can be spotted from very far away. While they are often surprisingly light, the snowy is the heaviest owl in North America. With a height of 2 1/2 feet, a wingspan of 5 feet and an average weight of 4 to 5 pounds, they’re one of the most powerful owls in the United States. Their extra body mass makes them a pound heavier than the great horned owl and twice the weight of a great gray owl.
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What Do Snowy Owls Eat?
A single owl hunts all day in the Arctic daylight and often consumes more than 1,500 lemmings per year. The owls also eat grebes, loons, songbirds, snow geese and great blue herons.
Snowy Owl Eggs
In summer, when lemming and vole populations surge in the north, female snowies can lay as many as 11 eggs in a season. Scott once saw five snowy owl eggs in the middle of a nest, surrounded by 78 dead lemmings and voles.
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Snowy Owl Behavior
If you’ve ever had the good fortune to see a snowy owl in the wild, you may have noticed that they seem calm. Some say it’s possible to get so close to a juvenile snowy that you can almost touch it. Considering they visit open, semi-populated areas such as farms, grasslands, seashores and the Great Lakes, they’re often close to people. While these birds are naive around humans, they’re known to be extremely territorial with other species. If you ever see one in person, remember: If the owl is looking directly at you, you’re too close.
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Why Do Snowy Owls Visit Airports?
Some snowy owls hang out near and around airports. Drawn to the open areas, this dangerous behavior makes it easy for owls to get hit or killed by backwash from an airplane engine. Members of Project SNOWstorm often trap and remove them from airports across the country.
unew/Getty ImagesHow Many Snowy Owls Are There?
Far fewer exist than we previously thought. The total population was once guessed to be about 300,000 worldwide, but in reality it is actually closer to 30,000. For comparison, Partners in Flight—a network of organizations dedicated to bird conservation—puts the global population of black-capped chickadees at about 41 million. The reason for the change in estimate is because snowy owls travel thousands of miles between breeding seasons. Prior to modern tracking, individual birds were often counted more than once.
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