What is a Snowy Owl?

G. Wiesen

A snowy owl is a type of owl often found in the northernmost reaches of the United States (US), as well as Canada and northern European areas. Named for both its appearance and the types of climates it frequents, snowy owls are fairly heavy birds with thick plumage that allows them to live in cold regions, even within the Arctic Circle. Male snowy owls are typically much whiter in color, with typically only a few bands of dark color on their bodies, while females are often more heavily banded with dark browns or grays.

Male snowy owls are generally white.
Male snowy owls are generally white.

The snowy owl was classified by the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaus, and is technically referred to as Bubo scandiacus, though one may also be referred to as a “great white owl,” “arctic owl,” or “ghost owl.” Snowy owls are typically found in northern regions, though they can migrate over a fairly large distance and often come into northern areas of the US such as New York during winter months when they are not breeding. During the summer, when snowy owls breed, they tend to remain farther north in areas such as Canada. The snowy owl is the official bird of Quebec.

Snowy owls hunt during daylight hours.
Snowy owls hunt during daylight hours.

Though many types of owls are nocturnal creatures, the snowy owl is actually diurnal and typically is active and hunts during daylight hours. They typically hunt using a “sit and wait” method, in which a snowy owl will remain mostly motionless and silent while watching for an opportunity to strike out against prey. Snowy owls typically build their nests at ground level, though they prefer to find rises or mounds that allow them to have an advantageous view of the surrounding area.

Summer is the usual mating season for snowy owls, and males will often begin courtship of females in the early months of the year. Snowy owl courtship typically involves the male walking or strutting about on the ground, spreading his wings and ruffling his feathers to demonstrate his worthiness. The male will often also hunt a great deal and may present his kills to the female to display his ability to provide food for potential young. He may even feed his intended female mate.

Snowy owl eggs are laid typically around the month of May, and a clutch will often consist of around five to eight eggs. This amount often depends on available food, with areas of greater food sources often being marked by higher numbers of eggs in a nest. The eggs are typically kept warm by the female, while the male guards the nest against predators.

Both the male and female snowy owl will work together, however, to keep predators away from the nest and will often use coordinated efforts to fight off other birds of prey, foxes, and even wolves. Baby snowy owls typically hatch about five weeks after the eggs are laid, and are raised by both parents. Snowy owls can usually live at least nine years in the wild, though they can live for more than 30 years in captivity.

Snowy owl females are often more heavily banded with dark browns or grays.
Snowy owl females are often more heavily banded with dark browns or grays.

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