Everything You Wanted to Know About the Snowy Owl
The Snowy Owl is perhaps the most beautiful and graceful of all birds of prey. With their stunning white plumage, they are easily identifiable, and certainly a highlight to see for anyone who loves birds.
In addition to being found across North America, the Snowy Owl is also prevalent across Scandinavia and the polar regions of Eurasia. These beautiful owls sometimes stay year-round in their breeding grounds of the arctic, but they frequently migrate to parts of southern Canada, northern areas of the United States, Asia, and Europe.
The Snowy Owl is the largest owl to inhabit North America and one of the largest owls worldwide. As with other birds of prey, the female is larger than the male, and measures between 20 to 28 inches in length. Their wingspan is impressive, reaching a length of up to five feet, and the average Snowy Owl will weigh in at about five pounds give or take a pound.
Not all Snowy Owls are pure white as the females tend to have more dark markings on them than do the males. Young Snowy Owls resemble the female in color with darker features, and young females, in particular, will have the darkest barring and streaking. The eyes of the Snowy Owl are large, and they are a brilliant yellow in color that makes for a fascinating facial appearance against the pure white feathers on their face.
Another feature to the Snowy Owl is the small ear tufts that adorn their head although they are usually tucked away and not visible. The tufts actually have nothing to do with the owl’s ears, and there is much uncertainty as to what they are actually used for. The legs and feet of the Snowy Owl are covered in the same fine white feathers that cover their face, and each foot has four sharp, long talons for hunting.
The Snowy Owl feeds mainly on small rodents such as lemmings, voles, mice, and various other small mammals with the lemming being their favorite food. They will also occasionally hunt for birds if there is a shortage of rodents in the area. Because they spend their summers in the high arctic regions where it is daylight for almost 24 hours a day they are diurnal and will hunt during the day. In winter their preference is to hunt at night like other nocturnal owls. The Snowy Owl has an enormous appetite and can consume between five to ten small rodents every day, and even more if they have owlets.
Interruption - Migration
The Snowy Owl spends most of its time in its breeding grounds on the tundra of the polar arctic. They do periodically migrate south for the winter starting in September, generally when competition for food increases. These migrations are not a yearly happening, and research suggests that it may be tied to the lemming population that can vary from year to year.
The winter of 2011-2012 saw one of the largest Snowy Owl migrations ever into the lower 48 states, and researchers are still trying to understand this mystery. Because these migrations are not a yearly happening they are referred to as “interruptions”.
Snowy Owls mate for life, and their breeding season usually begins in May while in the tundra regions near the Arctic Circle. Females will generally lay between three to ten eggs, and the size of the clutch will depend on the availability of food. In times of plenty, the clutch size will be large while if food is very scarce the clutch size will tend to be smaller or the pair may not breed at all.
The incubation period is usually about thirty days. and is done solely by the female while the male hunts and provides food. Nests are constructed on the ground although they do prefer a slightly elevated area, which gives them a vantage point to scan their surroundings. After hatching, the owlets will start to leave the nest area after about twenty days, but it will take up to eight weeks before they have mastered the art of flying. The young will continue to rely on their parents throughout the summer, and they will not mature until about one year old.
An interesting feature of the Snowy Owl is the fact that they cannot move their eyes so they have to turn their entire head in order to change their field of view. They have fourteen neck vertebrae, and this allows them to swivel their head up to 270 degrees. As with many other birds of prey, the Snowy Owl has exceptional eyesight, which comes as no surprise given their enormous bright, yellow eyes.
- The Snowy Owl can eat up to 1,600 lemmings in a one-year period.
- Snowy Owls like airports because the openness of the land reminds them of the tundra. Logan Airport in Boston is a popular winter spot for the Snowy Owl, and up to forty of them will congregate and winter there.
- The Snowy Owl is also referred to as the Great White Owl or the Arctic Owl.
- Snowy Owls are diurnal meaning they are active during the day and night.
- The Snowy Owl has excellent hearing in addition to eyesight. This helps them hunt when their prey is underneath snow and out of sight.
- The Snowy Owl will swallow its small prey whole if possible, and regurgitate the bones as pellets within 24 hours.
- When the winter food supply in the arctic regions is scarce the Snowy Owl will relocate, and has been found as far south as Texas and California. These are referred to as interruption years.
- Baby owls are called owlets.
- Although difficult to count it is estimated that there are approximately 300,000 Snowy Owls worldwide.
- The Snowy Owl was made famous in the Harry Potter series as Harry's trusted pet owl, Hedwig.
© 2012 Bill De Giulio