2 minute read

Owls: Strigidae

Snowy Owl (nyctea Scandiaca): Species Accounts

Physical characteristics: This is the only mostly white owl. Males may be completely white; females have black bars on the back and belly. These heavy-bodied owls have very large, rounded heads and no ear tufts. The eyes are yellow and the dark beak may be hidden by feathers. Snowies are particularly well adapted to the cold. The legs and feet are completely covered with feathers. The feathers are unusually stiff, to keep out Arctic winds.

Geographic range: Snowy owls are found in a ring of habitat that circles the North Pole. In summer they breed on the tundra. In winter they may move as far south as the northern Great Plains of North America or north central Europe and Asia.

Habitat: Snowy owls nest on tundra. On their southward wanderings, they often frequent open, grassy areas such as airfields and golf courses.

Diet: Snowy owls feed almost exclusively on several kinds of Arctic voles and lemmings, species that undergo regular boom-and-bust population cycles. They sometimes take much larger prey, including ptarmigans and snowshoe hares, and often steal food from Arctic foxes. In a region where daylight can last for twenty-four hours during the summer months, they routinely hunt by day.

Behavior and reproduction: Snowy owls rarely vocalize outside of the breeding season. The typical call is a gruff, low-pitched hoot. They nest right on the ground, usually on a raised mound. A typical clutch has five eggs. The female incubates the eggs for thirty-one to thirty-three days while the male feeds her. The young leave the nest after twenty to twenty-eight days but cannot fly well until they are about fifty days old.

Snowy owls and people: In years that snowy owls wander south, their presence thrills bird watchers. A subsistence food for the Inuit, snowy owls may legally be hunted by all Alaska residents. In the twenty-first century, the snowy owl has been made popular by the success of the Harry Potter books and movies.

Conservation status: Snowy owls are not considered threatened by the IUCN, although populations in northern Europe seem to be declining somewhat. Populations are not well monitored. ∎

Snowy owls spend their summers on the tundra, and head south for the winter, to areas such as the Great Plains of North America. (Robert J. Huffman/Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.)



Birdlife International. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 5, Barn-owls to Hummingbirds. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 1992.

BirdLife International. Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona and Cambridge, U.K.: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, 2000.

Duncan, James R. Owls of the World: Their Lives, Behavior and Survival. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2003.

Johnsgard, Paul A. North American Owls: Biology and Natural History. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.

Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.

König, Claus, Friedhelm Weick, and Jan-Hendrik Becking. Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Web sites:

Lewis, Deane P. The Owl Pages. http://www.owlpages.com (accessed on June 27, 2004).

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceBirdsOwls: Strigidae - Physical Characteristics, Behavior And Reproduction, Owls And People, Eastern Screech-owl (otus Asio): Species Accounts - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE, HABITAT, DIET, CONSERVATION STATUS