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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Snowy Owl

Bubo scandiacus ORDER: STRIGIFORMES FAMILY: STRIGIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The regal Snowy Owl is one of the few birds that can get even non-birders to come out for a look. This largest (by weight) North American owl shows up irregularly in winter to hunt in windswept fields or dunes, a pale shape with catlike yellow eyes. They spend summers far north of the Arctic Circle hunting lemmings, ptarmigan, and other prey in 24-hour daylight. In years of lemming population booms they can raise double or triple the usual number of young.

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Keys to identification Help

Owls
Owls
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Snowy Owls are very large owls with smoothly rounded heads and no ear tufts. The body is bulky, with dense feathering on the legs that makes the bird look wide at the base when sitting on the ground.

  • Color Pattern

    Snowy Owls are white birds with varying amounts of black or brown markings on the body and wings. On females this can be quite dense, giving the bird a salt-and-pepper look. Males tend to be paler and become whiter as they age. The eyes are yellow.

  • Behavior

    Look for Snowy Owls sitting on or near the ground in wide-open areas. They often perch on rises such as the crests of dunes, or on fenceposts, telephone poles, and hay bales. When they fly they usually stay close to the ground.

  • Habitat

    In winter, look for Snowy Owls along shorelines of lakes and the ocean, as well as on agricultural fields and airport lands. Snowy Owls breed in the treeless arctic tundra.

Range Map Help

Snowy Owl Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Snowy Owl

    Adult male
    • Unmistakable large white owl
    • Adult males are pure white
    • Rounded head
    • © Raymond Lee, Sturgeon County, Alberta, Canada, March 2011
  • Adult male

    Snowy Owl

    Adult male
    • Distinctive large white owl
    • Graceful in flight, powered by long, broad wings
    • Relatively small, rounded head
    • Adult males are solid, snowy white overall
    • © Ron Kube, Strathmore, Alberta, Canada, December 2011
  • Adult male

    Snowy Owl

    Adult male
    • Large white owl with rounded head
    • Adult males nearly pure white, sometimes with few faint dark marks
    • Long wings
    • © Trish Sweet, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, January 2011
  • Immature female

    Snowy Owl

    Immature female
    • Large owl with rounded head
    • Mostly white, but young females show extensive black barring
    • Bright white face
    • © Michael J. Andersen, Clinton Lake, Kansas, January 2012
  • Immature female

    Snowy Owl

    Immature female
    • Large white owl with rounded head
    • Long, broad wings
    • Short tail
    • Immature females heavily barred with black
    • © Raymond Lee, Strathcona County, Alberta, Canada, December 2011
  • Immature male

    Snowy Owl

    Immature male
    • Large white owl
    • Rounded head
    • Usually perched on ground in open field or on beach
    • Immature males show faint black bars throughout but mostly white head and face
    • © Ian Davies, Plymouth, Massachusetts, November 2011
  • Immature male

    Snowy Owl

    Immature male
    • Large white owl
    • Often perched prominently on ground or electrical poles
    • Immature males show fainter dark barring than females
    • Head and breast mostly white
    • © Trish Sweet, Rocky View County, Alberta, Canada, January 2011
  • Intermediate

    Snowy Owl

    Intermediate
    • Unmistakable large white owl
    • Long wings, clean white underneath
    • Relatively small, rounded head
    • Birds with intermediate markings are not readily sexed in field
    • © Michael J. Andersen, Smithville Lake, Missouri, December 2011

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Barn Owl

    Adult
    • Similar to Snowy Owl but smaller and more slender
    • Distinctive heart-shaped facial disc
    • Rufous and gray patterning above
    • © Russ Campbell, Ontario, Canada, September 2010
  • Adult white-morph

    Gyrfalcon

    Adult white-morph
    • Superficially similar to Snowy Owl but smaller and sleeker
    • Long, pointed wings and long tail
    • Smaller head
    • Dark eyes
    • © Andy Johnson, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, June 2011
  • Partial albino adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Partial albino adult
    • Albino hawks are superficially similar to Snowy Owl
    • No barring, blotchy brown markings
    • Smaller head
    • Longer tail
    • © Lyle Madeson, California, March 2009

Similar Species

If you see a very white owl at night anywhere in the lower 48, it’s more likely to be a Barn Owl than a Snowy Owl. Barn Owls are smaller and more slender than Snowy Owls with buffy and brown tones (though they can look very white in headlights and other strong light). The pronounced facial disk gives a distinctive heart shape to the face. Gyrfalcons are smaller, more slender birds with the profile of a falcon, not an owl. The head is smaller, the wings are narrower and more pointed, and the tail is longer.

Find This Bird

Unless you visit the high arctic, you’ll mainly be looking for Snowy Owls during winter in wide-open areas such as fields and shorelines. Scan snowy flat areas and be on the lookout for any irregularities in the snow. A lump or dirty patch could be a Snowy Owl facing away from you. Snowy Owls like to perch in conspicuous areas, so be sure to check high points like hay bales, fenceposts, telephone poles, buildings, or grain elevators. Also look for agitated birds—other raptors or gulls may swoop at a Snowy Owl sitting on a beach.