Majestic Northern Nomad: Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl by Tom Middleton, Shutterstock


Feathered from beak to toe tips, the Snowy Owl is well-equipped to survive on the frigid, high Arctic tundra. Its thick feathers make this bird North America’s heaviest owl, typically weighing about four pounds.


“Snowy Owls are one of those birds that really don’t seem like a bird at all—more like a furry white mammal with wings,” observes ABC’s Mike Parr. “Even though they look cuddly, I’m pretty sure they’d be tough customers if you ever tried to pet one!”


Some Snowy Owls remain on their Arctic breeding grounds year-round, while others migrate in winter to southern Canada and the northern half of the United States. In years when food is scarce, Snowy Owls may stage “irruptions,” traveling far south of their usual haunts in search of food, to the delight of birders and nonbirders alike.


Unlike most owls, Snowy Owls are active during the daytime, since they are accustomed to hunting at all hours during the continuous daylight of the Arctic summer. Because they often sit right on the ground while hunting, they prefer wide-open terrain where they can survey the surrounding area.



Snowy Owls also nest on the ground, preferring slight rises for better surveillance of potential prey. They mainly take small mammals, particularly lemmings. In years when lemmings are abundant, these owls can successfully raise clutches of up to five young. Snowy Owls are quite agile for their large size and can even catch small birds on the wing.


Their remote breeding grounds are largely free from direct human disturbance, although climate change may affect them. The Snowy Owl population probably rises and falls with the population cycles of its prey. 2013 has been a bonanza irruption year for Snowy Owls in the northern U.S., so this would be a good time to get out to see one. Check online with local bird websites to see where sightings are occurring.


Help the Snowy Owl by joining ABC’s “Keep Birds in the Picture” Challenge. A dollar-for-dollar match is in effect that will double the value of your gift received by Dec. 31. That means twice the results for birds. Give now!