Snowy Owl (Budo scandiacus)
The snowy owl is actually my favorite type of owl (mostly because of its graceful appearance).
Fun Fact: Owls are symbols of change and wisdom.
Body and Skeletal Structure:
Snowy owls tend to be between 1.7 to 2.5 ft (52-75 cm) tall, and have a wingspan of about 4.2 to 5.4 ft (1.3-1.65 m). Their weight typically ranges around 2.4 to 6.5 lbs (1.1-3 kg). Unlike most mammals, the females are actually slightly bigger than their male counterparts.
Fun Fact: The snowy owl is one of the largest species of owl in the world.
Snowy owls are predominantly white with dusky brown-black spots and bars. Young owls, especially males, get whiter as they get older. Females are darker than males, with their traditional dusky spotting, and almost never become totally white (although some do). These owls also have yellow eyes, and their legs and feet are covered in thick feathers that protect them from the cold weather. Their dark-colored bills are short, strong, and sharply pointed.
Although snowy owls are omnivorous birds, they primarily have a carnivorous diet and are known to be opportunistic hunters. An adult owl may eat around 3 to 5 lemmings each day, equaling about 1,600 per year. Although their main source of prey tends to be lemmings, they can also be found to hunt hares, foxes, birds (such as some songbirds and geese), fish, voles, squirrels, gophers, and other types of rodents. Like other species of large bird, the snowy owl is known to swallow its food whole and then regurgitate the bones in the form of a pellet up to 24 hours after feeding.
Fun Fact: Their local numbers are high when the lemming population they prey on is high, but lower when the lemming population is low.
These large owls tend to live between 10 to 17 years of age.
Mating Season: Typically May (can last all the way to September though)
Incubation Period: About 32-34 days
Clutch Size: 3-11 eggs (Average: 7 eggs)
Communication and Behavior:
Snowy owls are generally solitary birds, and unlike most owls (which are nocturnal), they are diurnal (active during the day). Snowy owls are also migratory. However, migration in this species is unpredictable and likely related more to prey abundance than seasons or weather. Although they’re typically lonesome, breeding pairs may form on the wintering ground or after the owls reach the breeding ground during the breeding season. There is little to no evidence that pair bonds last beyond one breeding season. During this time though, elaborate courtship displays are advertised early on to form a breeding pair. The male performs an “aerial display” (with shows of exaggerated flight) followed by a “ground display” (where the male seemingly “semi-flaunts” his tail feathers in a submissive-looking posture). After the breeding pair is formed, the male establishes a territory, and the female selects a nest site (such as a hillock, hummock or boulder). The female creates a nest by scraping out a shallow bowl in the turf or bare ground. The nest is not lined with any insulating materials. Only the female incubates the pair’s eggs (which vary in amount depending on the availability of food). The female also broods the chicks until they abandon the nest. Both parents feed and protect the chicks, which are covered with snowy white down feathers. (They hunt by utilizing an elevated perch that affords them good visibility while waiting for potential prey to appear in the hunting area). The male brings food to the nest, where the female dissects it into smaller pieces for the chicks to eat. Chicks begin to leave the nest before they can fly, about 14 to 26 days after hatching. The parents continue to feed them for 5 to 7 weeks until they are able to hunt for themselves. In years of low prey abundance, snowy owls forgo breeding. Snowy owls generally raise only one brood per breeding season. However, if a nest fails early in the breeding season, snowy owls may re-nest. Both parents are territorial and will defend the nest by dive-bombing potential predators that approach it or use distraction displays to draw the predator away.
As for communication, snowy owls use various physical displays and vocalizations. For example, males use exaggerated posturing when threatened or when defending a territory from a neighboring male. Males “hoot” more frequently than females, and seem to use this sound in territorial defense and establishment. Males and females also give a variety of other calls such as hissing, mewing, and “kre kre” sounds. These are frequently used when the adult is disturbed near the nest.
Fun Fact: Snowy owls are able to swivel their head three quarters of the way around their neck (270 degrees) when visually scanning an area.
Habitat and Range:
Snowy owls typically inhabit open tundra, but can also be found among lowland meadows and woodlands. When food is scarce, they tend to travel south to warmer climates in winter. In the south, they are frequently seen in villages, urban centers, marshes, and on dunes.
As of now, the snowy owl species is considered to be of “least concern.” However, owls do face threats from illegal hunting, the exotic animal trade, and collisions with vehicles, utility lines, and airplanes. Snowy owls may also face threats from climate change in the near future, as changing temperatures affect both their habitat and prey.