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Snowy Owl: Identification and Overview

April 2, 2023

Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) are one of the most enigmatic and striking bird species on the planet. With their unmistakable white plumage and piercing yellow eyes, they capture the imagination of bird enthusiasts and casual observers alike. In this extensive educational blog, we will explore the size and shape, color pattern, behavior, habitat, facts, and ecosystem services of the Snowy Owl, providing an in-depth understanding of their lives and their role in the ecosystems they inhabit.

Related: Learn How to ID Your Favorite Birds

How to ID a Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls are large, powerful birds, belonging to the family Strigidae, or "typical owls" [1]. They have a rounded head with no ear tufts, a robust body, and broad, rounded wings. Males and females exhibit sexual dimorphism, with females being slightly larger than males. Adult Snowy Owls can measure 20 to 28 inches in length, with a wingspan of 48 to 60 inches [2]. Snowy Owls are well-adapted to the harsh Arctic environment in which they live. They have dense, insulating feathers that cover their bodies, including their legs and feet, providing protection from the cold [2]. Their large, powerful wings enable them to fly silently and effortlessly over vast distances in search of prey. Snowy Owls are agile fliers, capable of both gliding and flapping flight. Their large wings allow them to generate significant lift, enabling them to take off quickly and cover great distances in search of food. Snowy Owls are also known for their silent flight, a characteristic shared by many owl species, which helps them approach their prey undetected [1].

(1) Holt, D. W., & Leroux, R. A. (2021). Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Ed.). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. doi:10.2173/bow.snwowl1.01

(2) Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (n.d.). Snowy Owl. All About Birds. Retrieved from

1. Size and Shape

The Snowy Owl's size and strength make them formidable hunters. They primarily hunt small mammals, such as lemmings and voles, but are also known to take birds, including ptarmigans and waterfowl [1]. Snowy Owls have exceptional eyesight and hearing, allowing them to locate prey even under the cover of snow or during the long polar night. Snowy Owls have powerful talons and a sharp, hooked beak, which they use to capture and dispatch their prey. Their talons are capable of exerting a strong grip, allowing them to hold onto struggling prey, while their beak is designed to deliver a lethal bite to the neck or head of their prey [2].

2. Color Pattern

The Snowy Owl's distinctive white plumage serves as excellent camouflage in their snowy Arctic habitat, allowing them to blend seamlessly into their surroundings [2]. The white feathers also help to reflect sunlight, reducing heat absorption and preventing overheating in the harsh Arctic environment. There is noticeable sexual dimorphism in the plumage of Snowy Owls. Males are generally whiter, with fewer dark markings than females. Adult females have more extensive dark barring and spotting on their bodies and wings, which provides them with better camouflage when nesting on the ground [1]. Juvenile Snowy Owls have a more heavily barred appearance than adults, gradually losing these markings as they mature. Snowy Owls undergo a complete molt of their feathers once a year, usually during the late summer or early fall. Molting helps to replace worn and damaged feathers, ensuring that the birds maintain their insulating and camouflaging properties. The molt can take several months to complete, and during this time, the owls may appear less pristine and more mottled in appearance [2].

One of the most striking features of Snowy Owls is their vibrant yellow eyes. The yellow color is due to the presence of carotenoids, which are pigments that the birds obtain from their diet. The bright yellow eyes serve as a stark contrast to their white plumage and are thought to aid in communication and courtship [1]. The Snowy Owl's beak is black, which helps it blend in with the surrounding facial feathers. This coloration may also play a role in thermoregulation, as the dark color can help to absorb heat from the sun, providing some warmth to the bird's face in the cold Arctic environment [2].

Photo by Tina Nord:

3. Behavior

Unlike many other owl species, Snowy Owls are active during both the day and night. This diurnal and nocturnal behavior is an adaptation to the extreme light conditions found in the Arctic, where daylight can last for 24 hours during the summer months, and darkness prevails during the winter [1]. Snowy Owls are versatile hunters, employing a range of hunting strategies depending on the availability of prey and environmental conditions. They can hunt from a perch, swooping down to capture prey on the ground, or pursue prey in mid-air. They are also known to hunt by walking or running on the ground, using their powerful legs to flush out prey hidden in the snow or vegetation [2].

Snowy Owls are relatively quiet birds, but they do produce a range of vocalizations, including hoots, hisses, and barks. Males use deep, booming hoots during courtship and to establish territory, while females produce higher-pitched calls. Juvenile Snowy Owls also have their own set of vocalizations, including begging calls when they are hungry [1]. Snowy Owls are monogamous, with pairs forming strong bonds during the breeding season. They nest on the ground, often in areas with low vegetation and good visibility. The female lays a clutch of 3 to 11 eggs, depending on the availability of food, and incubates them for around 32 days [1]. During this time, the male is responsible for providing food for the female and defending the nest from potential predators.

Outside of the breeding season, Snowy Owls can be quite social, with individuals often roosting together in communal groups, particularly during the winter months [2]. These gatherings can provide protection from predators and may also help the birds to locate food sources more easily.

4. Habitat

The primary habitat of Snowy Owls is the Arctic tundra, a treeless landscape characterized by low-growing vegetation and harsh environmental conditions. The tundra provides the owls with a suitable nesting habitat, as well as ample prey resources, such as lemmings and other small mammals [1]. During the winter months, Snowy Owls may venture south of their breeding grounds in search of food. They can be found in a variety of open habitats, including grasslands, marshes, and agricultural fields [2]. In some cases, Snowy Owls have been observed as far south as the northern United States, although these instances are relatively rare.

Snowy Owls are well-adapted to the harsh conditions of their Arctic habitat. Their insulating plumage, ability to fly silently, and keen senses make them efficient hunters in an environment where prey can be scarce and difficult to locate. Additionally, their white plumage provides excellent camouflage against the snow, allowing them to remain hidden from both prey and predators [1]. Human activities, such as habitat destruction and climate change, pose threats to the Snowy Owl's habitat. The loss of suitable nesting areas due to development, as well as the warming of the Arctic, which can lead to changes in prey availability, are both factors that can impact the survival of these birds. Efforts to conserve and protect the Arctic tundra are essential for the long-term survival of the Snowy Owl [2].

Related: Black-capped Chickadees: ID and Overview

Photo by Erik Karits:

Video on the Snowy Owl

"A snowy owl, hunts in utter silence and her unsuspecting prey will never know what hit it!" - ➡ Subscribe:➡ Get More Short Film Showcase:

Facts about the Snowy Owl

The global population of Snowy Owls is estimated to be between 200,000 and 500,000 individuals [1]. Although their numbers appear to be stable, monitoring their population is challenging due to their remote habitat and nomadic nature. Snowy Owls have a relatively long lifespan for a bird, with some individuals living more than 10 years in the wild. However, their life expectancy can be significantly affected by factors such as food availability and predation [2]. Unlike many other bird species, Snowy Owls do not have a regular migration pattern. Their movements are largely dictated by the availability of food, with the owls undertaking irregular "irruptions" in search of prey [1]. These irruptions can lead to large numbers of Snowy Owls appearing in areas where they are not usually found.

The Snowy Owl is currently classified as a species of "Least Concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) [3]. However, they face threats from habitat destruction, climate change, and human disturbance, and ongoing monitoring and conservation efforts are essential to ensure their long-term survival. Snowy Owls have long held cultural significance for the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. They are often associated with wisdom, courage, and endurance, and feature prominently in many traditional stories and legends [2].

(3) BirdLife International. (2020). Bubo scandiacus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22689052A171765634. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22689052A171765634.en

Ecosystem Services:

As predators of small mammals, Snowy Owls play a crucial role in controlling populations of rodents, such as lemmings and voles [1]. These small mammals can be detrimental to the tundra ecosystem if their populations grow unchecked, causing damage to vegetation and increasing soil erosion. By preying on these rodents, Snowy Owls help to maintain a balance in the ecosystem. The presence of Snowy Owls in the Arctic tundra contributes to nutrient cycling within the ecosystem. The remains of their prey, as well as their own waste, can provide important nutrients that help to support plant growth and overall ecosystem health [1].

Snowy Owls can serve as indicator species, providing valuable information about the health of the Arctic tundra ecosystem. Changes in their population numbers or distribution can signal shifts in prey availability or broader environmental changes, such as the effects of climate change [2]. Snowy Owls are an important draw for ecotourism in the Arctic regions, attracting birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts who are eager to catch a glimpse of these captivating birds in their natural habitat. Ecotourism can provide important economic benefits for local communities while also promoting conservation and environmental awareness [1]. The Snowy Owl holds significant cultural and aesthetic value for many people, particularly those living in the Arctic regions. Their presence in the landscape is a symbol of the wild and unspoiled nature of the Arctic, and they serve as a reminder of the importance of preserving and protecting these unique ecosystems for future generations [2].

In conclusion, the Snowy Owl is a fascinating and iconic species that plays a vital role in the Arctic tundra ecosystem. From their remarkable size and shape to their captivating behavior and the various ecosystem services they provide, these majestic birds are a testament to the resilience and adaptability of life in the harsh Arctic environment. As we continue to learn more about the Snowy Owl and the world they inhabit, it is crucial that we take steps to protect and conserve their habitat, ensuring that future generations have the opportunity to appreciate and study these incredible creatures.

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