Harry Potter fans will instantly recognize the snowy owl as Harry’s famous feathered companion, Hedwig, but these beautiful and powerful owls are easily recognizable not for their magical associations, but for their large size, bright yellow eyes and striking white plumage. Snowy owls are, in fact, the only primarily white owl, and they are a highly sought after species for many birders to add to their life lists.
Snowy Owl, Arctic Owl, Great White Owl, Harfang
Bubo scandiaca (formerly Nyctea scandiaca)
- Bill: Black and short, strongly hooked, often mostly hidden in facial feathers
- Size: 24-26 inches long with 55-65-inch wingspan, stocky body, round head
- Colors: White, brown, black, yellow, buff
- Markings: Dimorphic species. Males are almost entirely white with some faint brown or black barring on the chest, back, crown and wing tips. Females are larger and more heavily barred, though the face, cheeks and neck are plain white, and a white "bib" covers the upper chest. Both genders have buff feathered legs and bright yellow eyes. Juvenile birds are at first covered with white then gray down but develop adult plumage within a year. Species is monotypic.
Lemmings, small mammals, birds, fish (See: Carnivorous)
Habitat and Migration:
Snowy owls are found in far northern latitudes including tundra and Arctic habitats, and they prefer isolated, open habitats such as grasslands, open fields and wide beaches. Their breeding grounds are in the Arctic tundra, and they migrate south throughout Canada during the winter. While principally a North American bird, they can also be found in northern areas of Europe and Asia though with smaller overall populations.
These northern owls are a regularly irruptive species and in some years can be found far outside their typical range during the winter months. While unpredictable, snowy owl irruptions can be caused by overpopulation that causes birds to seek food further south, or a loss of northern food supplies that also causes birds to venture further south. These irruptions are eagerly anticipated by birders as a way to add the snowy owl to their life list without needing extensive travel.
Snowy owls are not vocal birds, but they do have a very high pitched, even screech and a low “chuk-chuk-chuk” call often used near the nest or when threatened.
Snowy owls, like all owls, are powerful, solitary predators that are active mostly at night but can hunt and feed during the day, especially when food supplies are low. These owls will perch on the ground or on rocks, stumps and other low vantage points in open areas where they can scan for food. Males can be ferocious when defending the nest, and both genders will also perform an “injured bird” act to lure predators away from the nest. In flight, they are silent and can locate prey at great distances by sound, even when the prey is underneath the snow.
Snowy owls are monogamous birds. The female will build a rounded scrape nest on the ground, and both parents may incubate the 3-10 plain white eggs for 30-34 days, or the incubation may be done primarily by the female while the male hunts for her. The owlets remain in the nest for 14-21 days and are cared for by both parents. Young birds will attempt their first flight at 42-58 days. Mated pairs will raise one brood per year unless food supplies are inadequate and then no eggs may be produced.
Attracting Snowy Owls:
Snowy owls are not backyard birds but may visit yards in suitable habitats to perch on posts or rocks. Leaving long grasses that can serve as food for mice and voles may also attract hunting owls.
Snowy owls are not considered threatened or endangered, though their irruptive appearances be an inadvertent threat when they are considered rare sightings and the attention of birders can cause undue stress on the birds. Some snowy owl populations are declining in Europe, but population numbers are stable in North America.
Not only are snowy owls familiar in many children's and young adult books and movies, including the Harry Potter and Guardians of Ga'Hoole series, but they are often featured prominently in other cultural ways. Depictions of snowy owls have been found in European cave paintings, and these birds are often featured in other contemporary artwork, books and toys.
- Barn Owl (Tyto alba)