©Spectrum Photography 2014
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.
The Snowy Owl can be found represented in cave paintings in Europe. Although the darkest males and the palest females are nearly alike in color, the whitest birds—including the ones that played Harry Potter’s Hedwig—are always males and the most heavily barred ones are always females.
Thick feathers for insulation from Arctic cold make Snowy Owls North America’s heaviest owl, weighing up to 7 pounds. Their wingspan can reach between 4 and 5 feet.
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.
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.
Snowy Owl migrations are extremely variable. Some North American Snowy Owls winter in southeastern Canada, the upper Great Lakes states, and New England just about every year. Winter numbers of Snowy Owls in the U.S. peak periodically, which may be attributed to lemming cycles farther north. During irruptive years, Snowy Owls can flush south throughout the lower 48 states, as far as south as Texas and Florida in extreme years.
Parmelee, D. 1992. Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). In The Birds of North America, No. 10 (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, Eds.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.
American Ornithologists' Union. 2003. Forty-fourth supplement to the American Ornithologists' Union Check-list of North American Birds. Auk 120: 923-931.
Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2011. Longevity Records of North American Birds
The State of the Birds Report 2014
Back to top