The Snowy Owl is a very large, diurnal owl of the Arctic tundra. During the winter it occurs in open fields of southern Canada and the northern United States.
It is North America's largest owl and its nearly pure white plumage is unmistakable. With a relatively small, round head, without visible ear tufts, and yellow eyes, its overall white plumage is variably barred or speckled with thin, black, horizontal bars or spots. Females and
juveniles are more heavily marked than males. It is a powerful flier, usually seen skimming over the ground or perched on a post or scrubby tree. There are no recognized subspecies of this owl.
The Snowy Owl has a direct, strong, and steady flight with deliberate, powerful downstrokes and quick upstrokes. It makes short flights, close to the ground, from perch to perch, and usually perches on the ground or a low post. Most hunting is done in the "sit and wait"
style. Its head may swivel as much as 270 degrees as it constantly turns its head searching for prey. This owl is highly diurnal, although it may hunt at night as well. Prey are captured on the ground, in the air, or snatched off the surface of water bodies. When taking
snowshoe hares, it sinks its talons into the back, backflaps until the hare is exhausted then breaks its neck with its beak. This owl often raids traplines for trapped animals and bait, and will learn to follow traplines regularly. These owls also fish by snatching fish with talons.
Small prey up to small hares are swallowed whole, while larger prey are carried away and torn into large chunks. Small young are fed boneless and furless pieces. Large prey are carried in talons, with prey like lemmings being carried in its beak.
This owl is highly nomadic. During periods of lemming and vole population crashes in the Arctic, mass movements of Snowy Owls occur into southern Canada and northern United States. These invasions occur every 3 to 5 years, but are highly irregular. Adult females
stay furthest north while immature males move furthest south during these incursions. There is little breeding site-faithfulness between years or mates in some areas, but in other areas, a pair of owls may nest in the same spot for several years. Territories around nests range
from 0.6 to 2.5 square miles (1.5 to 6.5 square kilometers), and overlap with other pairs. Densities on Banks Island ranged from 1 owl/square mile (2.6 kilometers square) in good lemming years to 1 owl/10 square miles (26 square kilometers) in low lemming years. It is
generally "shy" and nonaggressive except during the nesting season when it may attack intruders up to .6 miles (1kilometer) from its nest. The Snowy is likely a long-lived bird, reaching at least 9.5 years in the wild and 35 years in captivity. It has few natural enemies except
Arctic fox and wolves on its tundra breeding grounds. Skuas and jaegers may take eggs or young.
During courtship, males fly in undulating, moth-like flight when females are visible. On the ground males bow, fluff feathers, and strut around with wings spread and dragging on the ground. Males kill and display prey in caches to impress females, often feeding the female
prior to copulation. Courtship behavior can begin in midwinter, well away from breeding areas. When threatened at nests, birds lean forward and hoot loudly.
The Snowy Owl has better daytime vision than most other owls. Clutch and brood sizes are heavily dependent on food supply. It may not nest at all during years of low lemming abundance. When laying large clutches, total clutch mass may reach 43% of female weight,
an exceptionally high ratio for owls. Snowy Owls do not hunt near their nests and other birds, such as Snow Geese, nest nearby and take advantage of the owls driving off predators like foxes. During hot weather, it thermoregulates by panting and spreading its wings.
North America - Breeds in the western Aleutian Islands, and from northern Alaska, northern Yukon, and Prince Patrick and northern Ellesmere islands south to coastal western Alaska, northern Mackenzie, southern Keewatin, extreme northeastern Manitoba, Southampton
and Belcher islands, northern Quebec and northern Labrador.
Winters irregularly from breeding range south to southern Canada and northern United States including Minnesota and New York. In some years small numbers may reach as far south as central California, southern Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, central and
southeastern Texas, the Gulf States and Georgia. The Snowy Owl also occurs widely in northern Eurasia.
The Snowy Owl is the largest North American owl. Females are about 10% larger than males. Lengths average 26 inches (66 centimeters) for females and 23 inches (59 centimeters) for males. Wingspans average 65 inches (164 centimeters) for females and 62 inches
(158 centimeters) for males. Weights average 3.75 pounds (1,707 grams) for females and 3.55 pounds (1,612 grams) for males.
Snowy Owls could be confused with Arctic Great Horned Owls, which are very pale, but have prominent ear tufts, which are absent in Snowy Owls. White phase Gyrfalcons and ptarmigan in winter are both white-plumaged birds but look nothing like an owl. Barn
Owls look almost white, especially when seen at night, but have prominent facial discs and an orangish-brown back.
It has also been known as Arctic Owl, Great White Owl, White Owl, Tundra Ghost, Ookpik, Scandinavian Nightbird, Ghost Owl, Ermine Owl, White Terror of the North, and Highland Tundra Owl.
The scientific name, Bubo Scandiaca, translates into "eagle owl of Scandinavia." It was formerly known by Nyctea Scandiaca, "nocturnal owl of Scandinavia.
In parts of northern England it is good luck to see a Snowy Owl. In Romania, the souls of repentant sinners flew to heaven in the guise of a Snowy Owl. In ancient Greece, a magical "inner light" gives owls night vision. From rock paintings in France, the Snowy
Owl is the oldest recognized bird species in paleolithic rock art.