Snowy Owls

A Comprehensive Guide on Bubo Scandiacus: Discovering the Majestic Snowy Owl

Winter Snowy Owl

The snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is a large, white owl of the true owl family Strigidae, native to the Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia. Known for its bright white plumage and luminous yellow eyes, the snowy owl has an otherworldly, majestic appearance fitting for an avian ambassador of the far north.

Unfolding the Mystique – Where Does the Snowy Owl Habitat Lie?

Snowy owls are circumpolar birds, meaning their habitat range encompasses the entire Arctic Circle including tundra and grassland environments in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia and Russia.

Delineating the Snowy Owl’s Arctic Realm

  • Primarily found in open, treeless landscapes like:
    • Tundra
    • Taiga
    • Alpine areas
    • Coastal regions
  • Occasionally ventures into boreal forests and southern Canada/northern U.S. during winter irruptions

Adapting to the Tundra: The Snowy Owl’s Unique Habitat

Looking for snowy Owl when out of the blue sea

The tundra biome where snowy owls primarily reside is characterized by:

  • Extreme cold
  • Low precipitation
  • Short summers and long, frigid winters
  • Treeless, flat terrain with low-growing shrubs and grasses
  • Permafrost restricting drainage and root growth

To thrive here, snowy owls have special adaptations including:

  • Dense feathers for insulation
  • Thick plumage to blend into the landscape
  • Ability to survive purely on small rodents during lean times

Contrasts to Other Bird Habitats: How Do Snowy Owls Survive the Arctic Cold?

Snowy Owls Survive at the Arctic Cold

The snowy owl thrives in one of the harshest environments on Earth – the frigid Arctic tundra. This contrasts sharply with the more temperate habitats occupied by most other bird species:

  • Most songbirds migrate away from northern latitudes to avoid bitter winter weather. Snowy owls tough out temperatures as low as -50°F thanks to specialized adaptations:
    • Dense, multilayered plumage for insulation
    • Thick feathered feet to minimize heat loss
    • Ability to reduce metabolism and enter a torpid state to conserve energy
  • The treeless tundra lacks the forests and woodlands most birds rely on for nesting and shelter. Snowy owls nest right on the open ground.
  • On the tundra, nutrients are scarce and food webs simple. Lemmings make up the vast majority of the snowy owl’s diet. Other birds occupy more biodiverse habitats with abundant prey options.

Wanderers of the North: How Snowy Owls Traverse the Arctic Circle

The snowy owl ranges widely across the Circumpolar Arctic:

  • In summer, they hunt rodents nonstop under the 24-hour daylight of the high Arctic.
  • Some migrate south in winter, while others overwinter in the far north. Banded birds have traveled between breeding sites in the Canadian Arctic to wintering grounds in the northern U.S. Midwest.
  • Irruptive years see influxes of snowy owls into central and eastern Canada and the northern U.S. in search of food when lemming populations crash.
  • Their ability to traverse vast distances across remote Arctic regions is aided by strong winds and cold temperatures that facilitate long-distance flight.

The Impact of Snowy Owls on the Arctic Ecosystem

As a top predator, the snowy owl exerts influence through:

  • Control of prey species:
    • Cyclical lemming population booms and busts are intensified by owls switching between scarcity and abundance of this primary food source.
    • Declining lemming numbers force owls to prey switch, affecting ptarmigan and other small mammal and bird populations.
  • Nutrient cycling:
    • Snowy owls transport marine-derived nutrients from coastal feeding areas inland to nesting territories.
    • Leftover prey carcasses supplement scarce nutrients.
  • Indicator of environmental change:
    • Shifts in snowy owl numbers, reproduction rates, and migration patterns provide insight into warming trends and ecosystem disruption in the Arctic.

Examining the Physical Grandeur: Decoding the Snowy Owl Features

The Enigmatic Yellow Eyes: Their Role in Hunting

  • Large yellow eyes aid the snowy owl in spotting prey across the open tundra
  • Excellent daytime vision to hunt in 24-hour Arctic summers
  • Asymmetrical ear placement helps triangulate sound of hidden prey

The Snowy Owl’s Wingspan: Enabling Majestic Flight

  • Impressive 4-5 foot wingspan allows long-distance flight
  • Broad wings to soar over wide Arctic regions in search of food
  • Powerful wingbeats despite large size

The Importance of Feathers for Survival in the Harsh Arctic

  • Dense, multilayered plumage provides insulation from extreme cold
  • Thick feathered feet prevent heat loss
  • Soft feathers enable silent flight to sneak up on prey

Colour Variations: Distinguishing Males Snowy Owls from Females

  • Females: Mottled brown markings camouflage nests
  • Males: Stark white plumage, sometimes with faint flecks
  • Younger birds lighter overall with more spots

Unleashing the Great Horned Cousin: Comparing Features of Different North American Owls

The largest owl species found in North America is the Great Gray Owl
The largest owl species found in North America is the Great Gray Owl

Here is a comparison of some key features of different North American owl species:


  • The largest owl species found in North America is the Great Gray Owl, which is 16.5-19 inches long.
  • The smallest owl is the Elf Owl, which is only about 5-6 inches long and weighs less than an ounce and a half. This makes the Great Gray Owl over 3 times longer than the Elf Owl.
  • Other small owl species include the Northern Saw-whet Owl (7-8.5 inches) and the Western and Eastern Screech Owls (around 8-9 inches).
  • Medium-sized owls include the Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Barn Owl, which are 13-17 inches long.

Habitat and Range

  • Some owls like the Spotted Owl and Flammulated Owl are found exclusively in forest habitats.
  • The Burrowing Owl lives in open grasslands and deserts, often nesting in abandoned rodent burrows.
  • The Snowy Owl is found in Arctic tundra habitats.
  • The Barn Owl has the widest distribution and is found throughout the continental U.S.

Activity Pattern

  • Most owls are nocturnal, but the Northern Hawk Owl and Northern Pygmy Owl are diurnal (active during the day).
  • The Snowy Owl and Great Horned Owl are crepuscular, and active during dawn and dusk.

So in summary, North American owls vary greatly in size, habitat preferences, activity patterns, and geographic range across the continent. The Elf Owl and Great Gray Owl demonstrate the impressive variation in owl sizes.

Delving into Nesting and Breeding: How Snowy Owls Multiply and Thrive

Tales from the Breeding Grounds: The Snowy Owl’s Reproduction Cycle

  • Courtship displays in late winter/early spring
  • Males advertise territories and offer food gifts to potential mates
  • Females lay eggs in May once paired
  • Clutch size varies based on lemming populations
  • Incubation lasts around 30 days

The Snowy Owl Nest: A Peek into the Owl’s Dwelling

  • Simple nests in shallow depressions on the tundra
  • Lined with owl feathers and arctic vegetation
  • Built by female, reused for multiple years
  • Sites chosen for visibility, proximity to hunting grounds

Breeding Season in the Arctic: Challenges and Adaptations for Snowy Owls

  • Harsh conditions like cold, lack of food, predators
  • Won’t nest in years with low lemming numbers
  • Well-adapted with specialized plumage, stealth hunting skills

Young Owls: When Do Snowy Owls Leave The Nest?

  • Hatch after ~30 day incubation period
  • Fledgling stage lasts ~4 weeks
  • Leave the nest at around 1 month old

The Role of the Arctic Fox: Predators of the Snowy Owls

  • Foxes prey on eggs and chicks at vulnerable nesting sites
  • Adult owls can defend against foxes
  • May abandon nests if heavy fox presence

Beneath the Feathers: Snowy Owl’s Diet and Hunting Pattern

The Predatory Life: Snowy Owls’ Hunting Strategy

Snowy owls are efficient predators that employ a patient hunting strategy. They have excellent eyesight and hearing to help them locate prey.

  • Perch and watch – Snowy owls will sit very still on an elevated perch for hours, using their sharp vision and hearing to target prey. They can detect prey movements from over a mile away.
  • Swoop down – Once prey is spotted, snowy owls will swiftly and silently fly down to snatch their target with their large, sharp talons. Their soft feathers help muffle the sound of their approach.

Dove into the Arctic Tundra: The Role of Lemming and Other Small Rodents in a Snowy Owl’s Diet

Snowy owls are carnivores that feed mainly on lemmings and other small rodents that are abundant on the Arctic tundra where they live.

  • Lemmings – Lemmings make up 50-90% of a snowy owl’s diet. An owl family can eat dozens of lemmings per day, consuming over 1,600 per year.
  • Voles – Voles are another small rodent prey that snowy owls regularly eat.
  • Mice – Deer mice and other mice species are also common prey.
PreyPercentage of Diet

From Hunting to Eating: The Story of the Snowy Owl’s Pellet

Snowy owls swallow their rodent prey whole. They later regurgitate the indigestible bones, fur, and teeth in the form of a pellet. Analysis of these pellets provides information about an owl’s diet and hunting success.

Mammals and Birds: The Varied Diet Beyond Rodents

When rodents are scarce, snowy owls will opportunistically prey on other species:

  • Arctic hares
  • Squirrels
  • Rabbits
  • Large birds like ptarmigan, ducks, and geese

They have also been known to eat fish, amphibians, insects, and crustaceans at times.

Exploring the Day Hunter: How Snowy Owls Break the Norms of Nocturnal Hunting

snowy owl eating mammal
Snowy owl eating mammal

Most owls are nocturnal, but snowy owls often hunt during daylight hours:

  • In summer, they hunt throughout the continuous daylight of the Arctic
  • They are most active at dawn and dusk
  • Their white plumage provides camouflage in daylight

Hunting in daylight gives them a key advantage over nocturnal rodents that are their main prey.

A Glimpse into Snowy Owl’s Behavior: How Do Snowy Owls Conduct Themselves?

Territorial Snowy Owls: Intruders Beware!

  • Males establish and defend breeding territories using calls and threat displays
  • Fiercely protect nests by dive-bombing intruders
  • Some defend winter territories as well, even fighting other snowy owls

Snowy Owl Migrations: When and Why Do They Travel Far South?

  • Irruptive migrations occur every 3-4 years when prey is scarce
  • Travel south in winter in search of food
  • Individuals show high site fidelity, returning to same wintering spots

What Observers Say: Field Notes on Snowy Owl Behavior

  • Patient hunters that perch and watch for prey
  • Become active and call more frequently during breeding season
  • Young owls associate in winter flocks

Snowy Owls During Winter: Survival Tactics in the Extreme Cold

  • Insulating feathers and fat reserves to handle cold
  • Reduce energy expenditure by remaining still for long periods
  • Orient whitest feathers towards sun to stay warm

Unique Sounds of the Snowy Owl: Deciphering Their Calls and Hoots

  • Males’ territorial hoots and females’ alarm calls
  • Clapping sounds may actually be clicking of the tongue
  • Mostly silent outside breeding season


The snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is a remarkable bird that lives in the harsh environment of the Arctic tundra. In this essay, we have explored its unique adaptations, its complex social behavior, and its cultural significance. We have learned that the snowy owl is not only a skilled hunter and a caring parent, but also a symbol of wisdom and beauty in many cultures. By studying the snowy owl, we can gain a deeper appreciation of the diversity and richness of life on our planet. The snowy owl is more than just a white owl; it is a majestic creature that deserves our respect and protection.