A Snowy Owl swoops down to catch a lemming. Quebec government website Image Source
The Snowy Owl is white with yellow eyes and a black bill. Males are completely white, but females have some dark spots. Full grown snowy owls are about 20-26 inches tall with a 50-60 inch wingspan. These birds weigh between 3.5 and 6.6 pounds. The Snowy Owl is well-adapted to its Arctic environment thanks to its thick plumage, heavily-feathered feet, and color.
What do Snowy Owls sound like?
Snowy Owl calls are varied, but the alarm call is a barking, almost quacking krek-krek-krek-krek; the female also has a softer mewling pyee-pyee-pyee-pyee or prek-prek-prek. The song is a deep repeated gawh. They may also clap their beak in response to threats or annoyances. While called clapping, it is believed this sound may actually be a clicking of the tongue, not the beak.
Where do Snowy Owls live?
The Snowy Owl is typically found in the northern circumpolar region, where it makes its summer home north of latitude 60 degrees north. It is a nomadic bird because population fluctuations in its prey species can force it to relocate.
This species of owl nests on the ground, building a scrape on top of a mound or boulder. A site with good visibility, ready access to hunting areas, and a lack of snow is chosen. Gravel bars and abandoned eagle nests may be used. Breeding occurs in May, and depending on the amount of prey available, clutch sizes (the amount of eggs an owl lays) range from 5 to 14 eggs. The eggs hatch about five weeks later. The pure white young are cared for by both parents. Both the male and the female defend the nest with their young from predators.
What do Snowy Owls eat?
This powerful bird relies primarily on lemmings and other rodents for food. They will also eat small mammals and birds such as meadow voles and deer mice, but will take advantage of larger prey. Some of the larger mammal prey includes mice, hares, muskrats, marmots, squirrels, rabbits, prairie dogs, rats, and moles. Birds that the Snowy Owl will eat include ptarmigan, ducks, geese, shorebirds, ring-necked pheasants, grouse, American coots, grebes, gulls, songbirds, and short-eared owls. Snowy Owls will also eat fish and carrion. Most of the owls’ hunting is done in the “sit and wait” style; prey may be captured on the ground, in the air or fish may be snatched off the surface of bodies of water using their sharp talons. Each bird must capture roughly 7 to 12 mice per day to meet its food requirement and can eat more than 1,600 lemmings per year. Snowy Owls, like many other birds, swallow their small prey whole.
How have humans affected the Snowy Owl population?
Environmental conditions can cause food shortages, but their ability to be mobile permits them to move to areas with more food. Human activities probably pose the greatest danger to these birds, through collisions with power lines, fences, automobiles, or other structures that impose on their natural habitat. Now, Canadian provincial and territorial regulations have introduced prohibitions of killing of these birds in all parts of Canada, where they are most abundant, but the owls are still used for certain study programs.
This species is an extremely important part of the food web in the tundra ecosystem and during its visits to the south, the Snowy Owl may play a useful role in the natural control of rodents in agricultural regions.
The green indicates where Snowy Owls can be found in the summer. The blue is where they can be found in the winter. Achim Raschka Image Source