Snowy Owl Facts (and Where to Find Them!)
Find out where snowy owls live, what they eat, how to spot a snowy owl, and see pictures of what the baby owls look like.
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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, learn some fascinating facts about snowy owls.
Don’t miss this gallery of stunning owl photos.
Habitat: Where 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. For a beautiful collection of snowy owl photos and a personal narrative from photographer Paul Bannick, get a copy of Snowy Owl: A Visual Natural History.
Male and Female Snowy Owls
Males and female snowy owls look different. As with most raptors, females snowy owls 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.)
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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?
Snowy owls are excellent hunters, and they make the most of the Arctic’s prodigious supplies of lemmings. Food options on the tundra are limited, making lemmings a critical part of a snowy owl’s diet. 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 hunts all day in the Arctic daylight and 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, such as grebes, loons, snow geese and great blue herons. John James Audubon reportedly saw one lying on its belly and catching fish from a rock.
Snowy Owl Call and Sounds
Snowy owls 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.
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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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Baby Snowy Owl
Snowy owls split their parenting duties. While a snowy owl mom is busy with the nestlings, the dad brings food to keep everybody fed. If it’s been a particularly good year, he may leave a large stockpile of dead lemmings and other rodents around the nest for mom and the baby owlets.
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Snowy Owl Behavior
These owls are active during daytime. You might expect this of a bird that hails from the land of the midnight sun. 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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Snowy Owls Don’t Get 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.
“Not a winter person by any stretch of the imagination, this magnificent bird (above) got me out of bed and outside on days when the mercury dipped below zero. This was one of those days when it was below zero with the wind whipping across the marsh. I was the only person out with my camera this particular morning. Just me and the owl what an awesome experience to share time with visitor from the north,” says Heather Tarzia.
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Why Do Snowy Owls Visit Airports?
Courtesy Deb Potts
Some snowy owls hang out in fields near and around airports, as the birds are drawn to the open areas. They perch atop buildings and other structures so they can search for food. However, 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 the owls from airports across the country.
“Snowy owl irruptions made headlines across the northern states a few years ago. In Wisconsin, an airport had to develop a program to remove the majestic birds from dangerous areas. They utilized local falconers to trap and transport snowies to appropriate locations. After making sure the owls were healthy, they released them,” says Deb Potts of Weyauwega, Wisconsin.
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How Many Snowy Owls Are There?
Far fewer snowies 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.
Project SNOWstorm helps track the movements of snowy owls using cutting edge technologies to log the precise latitude, longitude and altitude of tagged birds as frequently as every six seconds. Since 2013, Project SNOWstorm has become one of the world’s largest collaborative research projects. This project is funded entirely by the public and has tracked more than 90 snowy owls across the Dakotas, Great Lakes, New England, the mid-Atlantic and southern Canada. Its largely volunteer team consists of scientists, bird banders and wildlife veterinarians from across the country. Its latest efforts include tagging and tracking owls on the Great Plains and studying how the construction of wind turbines affects these birds. In addition, the group is researching the mortality and movements of juveniles, while also working with airport authorities to relocate owls that end up in harm’s way.