14 Facts About the Splendid Snowy Owl

Snowy owl flying and looking toward camera

Wang LiQiang / Shutterstock

The snowy owl ranks up there with the most resplendent of all birds. With their white feathers, yellow eyes, and impressive wingspan, it is no surprise that they capture the imagination and attention wherever they go. The IUCN Red List lists the snowy owl as vulnerable, so we may run out of opportunities to see their majesty.

Check out these astonishing facts about snowy owls.

1. Snowy Owls Have an Enormous Range

During the breeding season, snowy owls inhabit the Arctic Circle tundra. Popular breeding sites In North America include the western Aleutians in Alaska, northeastern Manitoba, northern Quebec, and north Labrador in Canada. During the rest of the year, this nomadic bird regularly ranges from latitudes corresponding to Canada's southern border to the Arctic sea ice. If living on the ice pack, they hunt sea birds in the open ocean. This range can vary quite a bit, however. A mega-irruption, periods when bird counts are unusually higher, occurs every four years. During these periods, owls have traveled to Hawaii, Texas, Florida, Bermuda, Korea, and Japan.

2. Their Feathers Make Them Heavy

Snowy owls have an abundance of feathers to keep them warm, which adds to their weight of around 4 pounds. This thick feathering makes snowy owls the heaviest owl species in North America; they're a pound heavier than a great horned owl and double the weight of North America's tallest owl, the great gray owl. Female snowy owls are larger than males, as they're over 2 feet tall and have wingspans of up to 6 feet.

3. They Follow the Lemmings

Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) swooping in on lemming prey
Bruce Lichtenberger / Getty Images 

While snowy owls eat a wide variety of small mammals and even other birds, their diet consists primarily of lemmings, particularly during the breeding season. An adult snowy owl can eat 1,600 lemmings a year. Because of this, their local numbers rise and fall with that of the lemming population. During times of lemming population booms, they can raise double or triple their usual brood.

4. They Store Their Food

During the breeding season, snowy owls create a cache of prey. Females store food the male has brought to the nest, generally in a wreath-like formation around the nest. Typically the stock is 10-15 items, but scientists have recorded as many as 83 carcasses. Additionally, males will create caches at separate perches with around 50 lemmings. These caches provide food during times when hunting is scanty.

5. They Are Not Night Owls

The expression "night owl" originated because of the nocturnal habits of most owls. However, snowy owls don't fit the mold. They aren't strictly nocturnal or diurnal. Their activity varies depending on location and the amount of sunlight. The type of prey available in the area also determines when the owl sleeps. This ability to hunt during the daylight is a good thing, since they breed in areas where the sun never sets.

6. They Have Several Different Names

Snowy owls have a variety of names: Arctic owl, ghost owl, Scandanavian night bird, great white owl, the white terror of the north, and Ookpik. These names reflect their appearance and ghost-like silence.

Their scientific name is Bubo scandiacus. Until 2004, the snowy owl's scientific name was Nyctea scandiaca. At that point, genetic evidence indicated that snowy owls' closest living relative was great horned owls. This resulted in snowy owls, formerly in a genus of their own, getting renamed in the taxonomy. This reclassification is controversial because of the percentage of difference in DNA as well as other differences the owls have from other owls in the Bubo genus.

Bubo is the same genus as all other horned owls and the eagle-owls. Scandiacus is a Latinized form of Scandanavia, where taxonomers first noted the owl. Carl Linnaeus, known as the father of modern taxonomy, thought the males and females were different species. He named males Strix scandiaca and females Strix nyctea.

7. Male Snowy Owls Are Pale

almost completely white male snowy owl on utility pole
David Galt / USFWS / Flickr / Public Domain

Males of the species have dark brown bars when they're young and get whiter as they age, while females retain dark markings throughout their lives. Even though females can be pale and males can keep some markings, the whitest snowy owls are always male. Because the white feathers are hollow in structure, they stay warmer than if they had a pigment.

8. Snowy Owls Don't Get Cold Feet

female snowy owl stretching out feather covered leg and foot, standing on one leg
 Yves Adams /Getty Images

Snowy owls have feet and legs swathed in thick feathers, which provide the owls with insulation for the cold Arctic climate. They also have thick pads on the bottom of their feet. These feathers and pads act like snowshoes to prevent the owl from sinking into the snow. Sharp talons (claws) are used to grab prey.

9. They Prefer Open Space

snowy owl coming in for a landing on a snow covered slope
Bert de Tilly / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Snowy owls like to hunt in treeless places: tundra, planes, airport fields, or beach dunes. The open space help them in their pursuit of prey. They primarily hunt by perching on a pole or fence post in an otherwise empty area. They also hunt by hopping and walking along the ground. Hunting while flying involves making low passes just 3 feet off the ground.

10. Snowy Owls Leave the Nest Early

Snowy owls only spend about three weeks in the nest before leaving. They won't be ready to fly for another month, so they merely toddle about the Arctic. Scientists speculate this behavior is related to predator avoidance or a sibling rivalry. While they're out of the nest but before they can fly, they use the grasses on the tundra for shelter from predators and weather. Parents do still feed the owlets and teach them to hunt, however.

11. They Have Incredibly Keen Senses

snowy owl face with short bristly feathers near beak
 Sander van der Wel / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Like most owls, they have excellent distance eyesight. Since snowy owls' prey is often beneath the snow, they have a remarkable sense of hearing as well. In fact, it's been reported that they can dive into nearly 8 inches of snow to capture a vole. They have bristly feathers on their beak that they use like whiskers to detect nearby objects.

12. Snowy Owls Are Aggressive in Self-Defense

Snowy owls can be aggressive when defending their territory or against another species; they will dive-bomb humans, particularly in nesting grounds, and have been known to even attack Arctic wolves. They are most territorial around breeding season.

13. They Nest Directly on the Ground

Snowy owls build their nests on the tundra, using their bodies to shape and hollow out their homes. The male selects the territory, and the female chooses the nesting site. Snowy owls prefer windswept locations with a view. Sometimes, the female will build a second alternative nest and call the nestlings over to it in inclement weather. When the storm passes, they return to the original nesting site.

14. They Do Not Mate for Life

snowy owl couple with male in front of female
 Colette3 / Shutterstock

Snowy owls are monogamous, but they do not mate for life. Instead, they typically form an exclusive pair bond for a single breeding season. The next year, the courtship and pairing begin anew.

As part of courtship, males perform an impressive aerial display, sometimes with a lemming carried in their talons that they hand off to the female while in flight.

Save the Snowy Owls

  • Participate in citizen science by photographing snowy owls and sharing those photos with eBird. Find instructions at Project Snowstorm.
  • Notify your local wildlife agency and follow their instructions if you find a dead bird.
  • Find help for injured snowy owls. Contact your state or provincial wildlife agency or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Do not attempt to capture or help the owl yourself.
  • Contact your legislators and ask them to protect the snowy owls' Arctic homes and their prey from oil drilling and development.
  • Donate to conservation groups that are studying snowy owls and working to help the species.
  • Do your part to slow climate change.
View Article Sources
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  7. "Systema Naturae." Carl Linnaeus. 1735.

  8. 8 Fascinating Facts About Snowy Owls.” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Published November 23, 2015.

  9. Journey with the Snowy Owl, Part II.” Owl Research Institute.

  10. Infographic: All About Snowy Owls.” Public Broadcasting Service. Published January 2, 2014.

  11. Nyctea scandiaca Snowy Owl.” University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.