Snowy OwlBubo scandiacus

adult male
Jari Peltomaki/VIREO
adult female
Glenn Bartley/VIREO
adult female or 1st yr male
Glenn Bartley/VIREO
adult female or 1st yr male
Rob Curtis/VIREO
juvenile
Scott Linstead/VIREO
adult
Warren Greene/VIREO

Family

Description

A large, powerful owl of the high Arctic tundra, colored for camouflage during northern winters. In summer it may be nomadic, concentrating and nesting where there are high populations of the small rodents called lemmings. At other times it takes a wide variety of prey, including birds as big as geese. During some winters, large numbers of Snowy Owls appear south of the Canadian border; those that stop in towns and cities invariably cause a stir and attract media attention.

Habitat

Prairies, fields, marshes, beaches, dunes; in summer, arctic tundra. Breeds on tundra, from just north of treeline to the northernmost land. Prefers very open tundra, either in hilly country or wetter areas near coast. Winters in open country, including prairies, farmland, coastal marshes, beaches, large airports.

Feeding Diet

Varied, includes lemmings, plus other mammals and birds. In Arctic, may feed almost exclusively on lemmings when these are available. Otherwise, feeds on wide variety of prey. Takes mammals including rabbits, hares, voles, ground squirrels. In coastal areas may feed heavily on birds, including ducks, geese, grebes, murrelets, and sometimes songbirds. Also may eat fish, carrion.

Feeding Behavior

Often hunts by day. Usually hunts by watching for prey from a perch, then pursuing it in swift flight and catching prey in talons. Sometimes seeks prey by flying low, or by hovering and watching ground. May locate prey by sight or sound.

Nesting

In many regions of Arctic, may breed mainly in years when lemmings are abundant, failing to nest at all when lemmings are scarce. Male owl defends territory with deep hooting in early spring. In courtship, male flies with deep, slow wingbeats, often carrying a lemming in his bill; landing near female, he leans forward, partly raising wings. Nest: Chooses a raised site, on top of mound or ridge in hilly country, or on hummock in low-lying areas, always with good visibility in very open tundra. Site may be used for several years. Nest (built by female) is simple depression in tundra, with no lining added. Eggs: 3-11. Clutch size quite variable, with more eggs laid in years when prey is abundant. Eggs whitish, becoming nest-stained. Incubation is by female only, 31-33 days; male brings food to incubating female. Eggs hatch at intervals, so that female will be caring for first young while still incubating last eggs. Young: Female remains with young; male brings food, female takes it and feeds them. Young may leave nest after 2-3 weeks, but not able to fly well until about 7 weeks; fed by parents up to at least 9-10 weeks.

Eggs

3-11. Clutch size quite variable, with more eggs laid in years when prey is abundant. Eggs whitish, becoming nest-stained. Incubation is by female only, 31-33 days; male brings food to incubating female. Eggs hatch at intervals, so that female will be caring for first young while still incubating last eggs. Young: Female remains with young; male brings food, female takes it and feeds them. Young may leave nest after 2-3 weeks, but not able to fly well until about 7 weeks; fed by parents up to at least 9-10 weeks.

Young

Female remains with young; male brings food, female takes it and feeds them. Young may leave nest after 2-3 weeks, but not able to fly well until about 7 weeks; fed by parents up to at least 9-10 weeks.

Conservation

Formerly many were shot during southward invasions in winter. Most North American breeding areas are remote from effects of human disturbance, but climate change is likely to affect many Arctic birds. Has declined in parts of breeding range in northern Europe.

Range

Migration not well understood. Nomadic in breeding season, concentrating where prey abundant. Numbers moving south in winter quite variable from year to year, probably relating to populations of prey in the north.

Similar Species

adult male

Barn Owl

With its ghostly appearance, rasping shrieks, and habit of roosting in such places as church belfries, this bird has attracted much superstition. However, it is really a good omen for farmers who find it in their barns, for it preys chiefly on mice and rats. Discovered in its daytime retreat, the Barn Owl bobs its head and weaves back and forth, peering at the intruder. At night it is often heard calling as it flies high over farmland or marshes. One of the most widespread of all landbirds, found on six continents and many islands.

adult

Great Gray Owl

A big nightbird, haunting woods of the far north and certain high mountains of the west. Its great size is partly illusion: it has very thick fluffy plumage, and its body size is smaller than it would appear, so it preys mostly on tiny rodents. When there is a population crash of voles and other rodents in the boreal forest, numbers of Great Gray Owls may drift into the northeast, causing excitement for birders.

adult Northern Spotted Owl

Spotted Owl

Because it requires old-growth forest, this owl has been at the center of fierce controversy between conservationists and the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest. The owl itself seems anything but fierce: it has a gentle look, and it preys mostly on small mammals inside the forest. Its deep hooting calls carry far on still nights, especially in southwestern canyons where they may echo for more than a mile. Found on their daytime roosts, Spotted Owls may allow close approach.

adult

Barred Owl

The rich baritone hooting of the Barred Owl is a characteristic sound in southern swamps, where members of a pair often will call back and forth to each other. Although the bird is mostly active at night, it will also call and even hunt in the daytime. Only a little smaller than the Great Horned Owl, the Barred Owl is markedly less aggressive, and competition with its tough cousin may keep the Barred out of more open woods.

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