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Snowy Owl Biology
A Reference for North and Central American Owls

Snowy Owl - Bubo (Nyctea) scandiaca

Breeding Range Map  
Other Common Names:
Snow Owl; Arctic Owl; Great White Owl; White Owl

Subspecies: The Snowy Owl has no subspecies divisions.

Measurements and Weights:
 Wingspan:  54     -   66 in.
 Length:       20 -27  in.
 Tail:            8 3/4 - 10 3/4 in
Average Weight:

  Male (North America):     58 1/2 oz.
  Male (Eurasia):               61 1/2 oz.
 
Female (North America): 61 1/2 oz.
  Female (Eurasia):                80 oz.

Description: The Snowy Owl is a large owl with poorly developed ear tufts that are usually not visible. The male can be entirely immaculate white although usually shows some spots or bars of dark slatey brown or black  on the crown, back, wings, and/or tail. His under parts are also generally marked with narrow bars on the abdomen, flanks, and sides. The adult female is much more heavily barred and noticeably larger. Only her face, center part of breast, and back of neck are unmarked white. The barring also tends to be more blackish. Both male and female have small, in comparison with other owls, brilliant yellow iris. The Snowy Owl is primarily diurnal (active in daytime). It is the most massive (greatest average weight) of the North American Owls and believed, by many, to be the most powerful. It has feathered feet and its large sharp talons and dull black bill are almost buried in its fluffy white feathers. It is also almost totally silent outside of its breeding grounds.

Young: The hatchlings are initially covered in white down that turns gray, except throat and facial disk, after about 10 days. Juvenile owls are light brown with white tips of down. The young owls become like the adult females in plumage with the young females having the heaviest barring and streaking.

Habitat: The Snowy Owl inhabits the northern tundra around the world. It is generally associated with open areas of low elevation (below 600 ft.) although in some areas of the world like Norway it breeds in the mountains (approx. 3000 ft. elevation). In general the Snowy Owl inhabits areas of low sparse vegetation, open fields, moorland, valley floors, salt and poorly drained fresh water meadows. Its habitat is closely associated with the distribution of small rodents and in the case of breeding territory directly corresponds with the distribution of small rodents (especially lemming). In the winter it is often found in farming areas with open fields of low stubble, marshes, and even dunes.

Food and Feeding: Since the Snowy Owl is distributed in the north around the world its diet is determined by the availability of food in the region it resides. On its breeding grounds in the far north lemming and voles are its major food source. Other prey is also common in its wintering grounds and as is available in the region. This list of foods taken includes small rodents such as mice, rats, moles, hares, and various other mammals including rabbits. Various birds are also common which include pheasants, grouse, quail, dove, domestic poultry, alcids (like dovekie), and various water foul often including ducks, grebes and even medium sized geese. The Snowy can locate prey strictly audibly and may plunge in the snow for visibly hidden rodents like lemmings. It usually hunts from an elevated position that can vary from a raised knoll to a treetop or telephone pole along the edge of a field. It often makes long low flights to capture prey on the ground or birds from the water's surface or pursues them in the air. It can hover and pounce on prey from the air or while on the ground. The Snowy is even said to catch fish, amphibians, and crustaceans.

Breeding: The Snowy Owl is usually monogamous and pairs for life. The nesting season is May through September. They begin laying eggs at a very consistent time in mid-May and finish laying by early June. The average clutch size is about 7 - 8 eggs but 3 - 15 is possible depending on food supplies. The Snowy Owl nests directly on the ground (usually on a slightly elevated area) or on a large boulder. The incubation, 31 - 33 days, is done exclusively by the female while being fed on the nest by the male. The young can walk at about 2 weeks of age and leave the nest at 20 - 30 days old, staying in the adult's territory, still unable to fly. They begin attempting flight at about 35 days of age although do not master flying until they are about 50 days old. The adults continue to care for the young for at least another 10 weeds. Although sexual maturity is reached at 1 year their first breeding is usually not until their 2nd year.

Movements and Life Span: Like other artic breeding raptors the Snowy is very irruptive and irregular in its movements depending on the availability of food. During years when there is a crash in the numbers of lemming most all leave the breeding grounds. Thus, there are major incursions into Canada and the Northern US (N & C Europe, NC Russia & N China & Japan) about every 3 - 5 years. These incursions often bring Snowys as far south as N. California and South Carolina with records as far south as Bermuda. It is also interesting to note that the smallest and lightest, the young males, tend to move the furthest and the largest, adult females, tend to move the least. The Snowy Owls are relatively long-lived owls that are thought to usually live to more than 10 years of age in the wild and there are records of captive birds reaching 28 years old.

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