13 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 surround the Arctic Circle. In North America, popular breeding sites 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 with the southern border of Canada north to the arctic ice. However, this can vary quite a bit, and every four years, a mega-irruption occurs, and the owls have traveled to Hawaii, Texas, Florida, Bermuda, Korea, and Japan.

2. They Are Impressive in Build

Snowy owls have an abundance of feathers to keep them warm, which adds to their weight of around four pounds. This thick feathering makes snowy owls the heaviest owl species in North America. The owls are 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 with wingspans of up to 6 feet and over 2 feet tall.

3. Snowy Owls 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 prey 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 term night owls came to be due to the nocturnal habits of most owls. Snowy owls don't fit the owl mold, though. 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 Numerous Aliases

Snowy owls have a variety of names. For example, 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 evidence caused snowy owls, formerly in a genus of their own, to get 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-a place where taxonomers first noted them. Linneaus thought the males and females were different species. Males he named Strix scandiaca. Females were called Strix Nyctea.

7. The Males 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 young and get whiter as they age; 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 thickly swathed in feathers. These feathers provide the owls with insulation for the cold Arctic climate. They also have thick pads on the bottom of their feet. The thick feathers and pads act like snowshoes to prevent the owl from sinking into the snow. They use their sharp talons (claws) 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, think the tundra, planes, airport fields, or beach dunes. The open space aids 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. If they hunt by flight, they make low, 3 foot high, passes over an area with few perches.

10. Snowy Owls Leave the Nest Fast

Snowy owls only spend about three weeks in the nest before leaving. They aren't yet able to fly, so they merely toddle about the arctic. Scientists speculate this early nest leaving is related to predator avoidance or sibling rivalry. It will be another month before they can fly. During this period, they use the grasses on the tundra for shelter from predators and weather. Parents do still feed the owlets and teach them to hunt.

11. They've Got the Keenest of 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. These owls hear so well, they've been reported diving into nearly 8 inches of snow and capturing a vole. They have bristly feathers on their beak that they use like whiskers to detect nearby objects.

12. They’re Not Meek

Snowy owls can be pretty aggressive when defending their territory or against another species; they will divebomb humans and have been reported even to attack Arctic wolves. They are most territorial around breeding season. The owls have attacked humans in nesting grounds.

Dogs belonging to reindeer herders are frequent targets of snowy owls as well. A male snowy owl attacked a dog that followed an ornithologist to check a nest in one account. The owl hit the dog and threw it three feet in the air, and as the dog ran off, the owl struck another time. The dog never left camp again.

13. Snowy Owls 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. Snowy Owls Don't Mate for Life

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

Snowy owls are generally serial monogamists. They form an exclusive pair bond for a single breeding season. There are some noted exceptions where a male will mate with more than one female. 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.