© KURT LINDSAY
The Snowy Owl is one of the most captivating arctic animals. With sleek white plumage, impressive hunting capabilities, and iconic appearance, Snowy Owls capture the attention of the public and media like none other.
Despite their dazzling looks, Snowy Owls are among the hardiest of species, living in one of the harshest environments on the planet. How do they endure the extreme cold of the Arctic tundra? Like all birds and mammals, Snowy Owls are homeotherms, allowing them to regulate their internal temperature. Additionally, they have dense body (or contour) feathers that insulate their stocky bodies; long, thick feathers cover their toes and legs, helping to block arctic winds and offer protection from feisty prey.
Additionally, Snowy Owls maintain warmth through metabolic activity and rely on food to do this - lots of food! It is estimated that an adult may consume up to a full pound of food each day during the winter. That’s the equivalent of a 170-pound man eating 45-pounds of food in a day! Small rodents called lemmings are the Snowy Owls most important food source on their breeding grounds: when plentiful, lemmings represent up to 95% of their summer diet. However, these birds can’t always be so picky. When
lemmings aren’t as populous, Snowies also feed on ptarmigan, hares, carrion, sea ducks and shorebirds, fish, and other small mammals.
When lemming are scarce, Snowy Owls may not breed at all. Mating and raising chicks increases food demands and puts adult owls and their chicks at greater risk of starvation. During good lemming years, however, when food is abundant, females will cache extra food brought home by the male. Nests have been found with over 70 lemmings cached in, or around, them.
While Snowy Owls may be media stars of today, it isn’t a new phenomenon: the white owl has attracted attention throughout history. In Alaska, the Inupiat people call the Snowy Owl Ukpik and once relied on the bird and its eggs as a food source - a cultural tradition evidenced in carvings of bone and ivory. The city formerly known as Barrow is now named Ukpeaġvik, which has been translated by some to mean “place where snowy owls are hunted.”
Instead of migrating, some Snowies remain in the Arctic through the winter. Although Snowy Owl migration is not well understood, over-wintering birds seem to be mature; whereas the irruptions sometimes seen in the lower U.S. are comprised mostly of young birds. The Arctic winter has constant darkness: the summer has constant light: so when do Snowy Owls hunt? Research suggests that, regardless of the season, theoretical nighttime hours are mostly used for hunting and activity, although Snowy Owls are still classified as diurnal - hunting in day and night.
© Ly Dang/nature2pixels.com
SNOWY OWL FACTS:
Large, white owl with bright yellow eyes, a dark beak, and thickly feathered feet
Males: adult males are pure white
Females: white with dark bars or spots
Young: resemble females
OTHER NAMES: Snow Owl
CLOSEST RELATIVE: Great Horned Owl
SNOWY OWL SIZE:
Females outsize males.
Height: Males 55-64 cm (21-23 in), Females 60-75 cm (22-26 in)
Weight: Males 700-2500g (1.5-5.5 lbs), Females 790-2950 g (2-6.5 lbs)
SNOWY OWL RANGE:
Circumpolar; summer in Arctic, often spend winter in southern Canada, northern U.S.,
and similar latitudes around the world
SNOWY OWL HABITAT:
Tundra, meadows, marshes, dunes; during nesting season, lives on the tundra
SNOWY OWL DIET:
Mostly lemmings, voles, and other rodents; often birds, sometimes rabbits and other small mammals
SNOWY OWL VOICE:
Mostly silent, but a wide variety of calls heard around breeding sites
Males: loud, booming “hoo, hooo”; when disturbed, a rapid, “kre-kre-kre”
Females: whistle, mew, or scream
SNOWY OWL NESTING:
Nest Site: on the ground, atop low mounds (1m, 3 ft)
Eggs: 4-8 round, white eggs, laid asynchronously one every 2-3 days
Incubation: 31-33 days
SNOWY OWL HUNTING HABITS:
Mostly diurnal, but will hunt any time of day in the constant daylight of Arctic summer
SNOWY OWL CONSERVATION STATUS:
Not globally threatened; species of “Least Concern”, but appears to be declining in northern Europe.
SNOWY OWL RESEARCH:
Read about the Owl Research Institute's Snowy Owl study in RESEARCH.
ALSO OF INTEREST:
• Snowy Owls nest on small mounds in the arctic tundra
• One of the few species of owl that builds its own nest
• It takes several years for males to turn totally white
• Irruptions (great numbers of birds migrating to an area)
take place in the northern US after a productive breeding
• Use a ‘wallop’ hunting method - swooping down and
snatching prey with their strong talons
• Fledglings leave the nest and spend nearly a month hiding
& toddling around the tundra before they are able to fly
• Food is often delivered to the female by the male during courtship displays
SNOWY OWL DISTRIBUTION IN NORTH AMERICA
Maps provided by The Birds of North America Online and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
It’s no wonder Harry Potter chose this owl to be his right hand man. Snowy Owls- the large, white owls of the north- appear almost magical when seen flying silently overhead. They’re quite mysterious too. Considered nomadic, these hardy hunters travel many miles in search of their favorite foods. Even the scientists who study them never know where they’ll be seen next! Snowy Owls prey mostly on rodents like lemmings, and can show up most anywhere rodent populations are high.
Unlike many other owls, Snowy owls are not nocturnal, and can be seen hunting any time of the day or night. Consider yourself lucky if you spot one though, because these owls tend to inhabit places where humans don’t live.
Snowy Owls spend their summers in the Arctic, hunting and nesting out on the tundra in places few people visit. When moving south in the winter, they don’t choose warm, sunny locations like many other migrating birds do. These snowy white raptors spend their winters where they’ll blend in- on snow-covered farmlands, dunes, or marshes. Most any flat, open land will do… as long as the hunting is good!
Daniel J Cox/NaturalExposures.com