Whether the tundra or the Great Plains, an airport field or beach dunes, Snowy Owls like treeless places and wide-open spaces. Because they often sit right on the ground to hunt, they prefer rolling terrain where they can find a vantage to survey the surrounding area. On their wintering grounds they’ll also perch atop a fencepost, hay bale, building, telephone pole, grain elevator—anywhere with a good view.Back to top
Snowy Owls mainly eat small mammals, particularly lemmings, which at times on the tundra may be all these birds eat. Sometimes they’ll switch to ptarmigan and waterfowl. Snowy Owls are also one of the most agile owls, able to catch small birds on the fly. On both their breeding and wintering grounds, their diet can range widely to include rodents, rabbits, hares, squirrels, weasels, wading birds, seabirds, ducks, grebes, and geese. Back to top
It is thought that the male selects the territory, and the female chooses the nest site within the territory. Snowy owls nest right on the tundra. They prefer slight, windswept rises that will be dry and blown free of snow.
The Snowy Owl female builds the nest, scraping out a shallow hollow on the bare ground and shaping it by pressing her body into the depression. The process takes a few days, and the owls may reuse the nest site for many years.
|Clutch Size:||3-11 eggs|
|Number of Broods:||1 brood|
|Egg Length:||2.2 in (5.7 cm)|
|Egg Width:||1.8 in (4.5 cm)|
|Incubation Period:||32 days|
|Nestling Period:||18-25 days|
|Condition at Hatching:||Wet and blind (eyes usually open by day 5); within hours a Snowy Owl hatchling is a little white fluff ball of downy feathers.|
Snowy Owls do a lot of sitting. They sit still in the same spot for hours, occasionally swiveling their head or leaning forward and blinking their big, yellow eyes to get a closer look at something. When they hunt, they use extraordinary vision and hearing to draw a bead on their prey—maybe a vole scurrying beneath the snow—and then fly, or even run, over to pounce on it. If successful, they’ll down the rodent headfirst in a single gulp. On their breeding grounds, male Snowy Owls execute a fascinating mating display. First the male rises into the air with exaggerated wingbeats in an undulating flight, holding a lemming in his bill or talons. Then he descends to the ground with wings flapping or held in a "V." He drops the prey on the ground, stands erect, then lowers his head and fans his tail as the female approaches. To defend his territory from another Snowy Owl, a male lowers his head and sticks it forward, extending his wings and raising the feathers on his neck and back to seem bigger. To defend against other species, Snowy Owls have been known to dive-bomb and strike at humans. Once it was reported that a Snowy Owl attacked a pair of arctic wolves. Back to top
Snowy Owls nest in remote areas, have huge territories, and in winter their migrations are widespread and unpredictable, so it’s very difficult to estimate their population size. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 29,000 and rates them 14 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score for a species showing steep declines and facing major threats. Having determined that Snowy Owls lost 64% of their population from 1976-2016, Partners in Flight includes Snowy Owls on their Yellow Watch List for species that will require constant care and long-term assessment to prevent further declines. Like all raptors, Snowy Owls are protected from trapping and shooting, and this may protect them during winters in populated areas. Their remote breeding grounds in the High Arctic are largely free from direct human disturbance, although it’s not clear how climate change will affect them. The Snowy Owl population probably rises and falls with the population cycles of its prey; for example, on Banks Island in Canada, the Snowy Owl breeding population has ranged from 2,000 to 20,000.Back to top
Holt, Denver W., Matt D. Larson, Norman Smith, Dave L. Evans and David F. Parmelee. (2015). Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.
Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.
Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.
Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.