How The Peregrine Fund is helping
The Peregrine Fund is not working directly with Snowy Owls, but our conservation efforts through habitat protection, education, and community outreach extend to all raptor species, including this beautiful owl. We also supply literature to researchers from our avian research library, which helps scientists around the world gather and share important information on raptor conservation.
Where they live
The aptly named Snowy Owl is mainly a circumpolar species, which means that individuals live and nest in the far north regions around the North Pole. In the non-breeding season, this species also can be found in areas of southern Canada and the northern United States, as well as parts of Asia and Europe.
However, Snowy Owls have been known to travel surprisingly long distances far out of their normal range. This phenomenon is called irruption and scientists believe there are two main reasons for one to occur. It may happen when the populations of lemmings and voles – the Snowy Owl's main prey items – get very low. This would force these owls to travel farther and further in search of food. Or just the opposite may be true. If prey populations are very high, owls may have very successful breeding seasons and produce lots of young. If you have ever seen children scrimmaging for candy beneath a broken piñata, you know lots of individuals create lots of competition. In this case, these owls will also have to travel further away to find food and avoid competing with other owls. When an irruption occurs, Snowy Owls have been known to travel as far south as northern California, Texas, and Oklahoma. In fact, in 2011 a Snowy Owl made it all the way to Hawaii!!
The Snowy Owl prefers to live in open areas with few trees. In the Arctic, they live in tundra, but also inhabit grasslands and open fields.
What they do
This owl has bright yellow eyes, a coal-black beak and snowy white feathers etched with a varying amount of black dots, lines and striations. Though you have to look very closely to see them, the Snowy Owl also has very small ear tufts, small feathers which stick up on both sides of its head. Juveniles tend to have the most black on their feathers. Adult females also retain some of the darker markings, while males have the least. Either way, this beautiful color combination makes this species unmistakable in the owl world. This color combination also helps these owls to blend in with their snowy surroundings, providing them with extra "cover" when hunting in wide open terrain. Of course, when there is no snow, these owls are quite easy to spot against a green or brown background.
While most owls are active mainly at night, the Snowy Owl hunts during the daytime, particularly in the summer when days are very long.
Snowy Owls, like many owls, are covered from head to toe with feathers. Because they live in high, cold regions, the feathers on their legs and feet are more densely layered than those of other owls living in warmer climates. Who would want to go out into the cold without something warm on their feet? One role of these owls´ feathers is to help keep them warm. Feathers, of course, also help birds fly. Like other owls, the ends of the Snowy Owls flight feathers are very soft and feathery, giving it the ability to fly in absolute silence because the air doesn't make noise as it passes through the soft feathers. This helps them be very stealthy hunters. Since Snowy Owls often fly low over the ground when hunting, it is important that their prey doesn´t hear them coming!
Many owls use their exceptional hearing to help them locate prey and Snowy Owls are no different. Though they use their keen eyesight to find tasty morsels of food, they live in areas where the ground is often covered in snow. When this is the case, many small mammals move around by tunneling their way beneath the snow unseen. The Snowy Owls use their sharp hearing to pinpoint exactly where prey is moving. Owls can detect a vole's exact location, pounce down and grab it out of the snow without ever once laying eyes on it! The little rodent never sees it coming.
Why they need our help
Because of where the Snowy Owl lives, it does not come into contact with humans as often as many other raptors do. This helps protect them from many of the threats that other birds of prey face such as shooting, poisoning, and collisions with cars and power lines, though these things can happen to Snowy Owls, too. As far as natural predators go, only a handful of animals hunt Snowy Owls – usually foxes and wolves, but this occurs mostly when the owls are vulnerable sitting on or near the nest. Some gulls will also try to take the eggs and young out of a Snowy Owl nest. In general Snowy Owls have little to worry about from predators. One of the biggest threats that these beautiful birds face may be climate change.
The rugged, remote places where these owls live make them difficult to study but, as a rule, birds of prey are very sensitive to changes in the environment. Their populations may be affected by an increase of pesticides in the environment, a loss of habitat, or a decrease in prey numbers. Climate change may be causing many of these things to occur. As temperatures warm, many animals and humans may begin to travel farther north, and animals adapted to extreme cold temperatures will have fewer and fewer places to run to. Living in the far north is extremely challenging, even for the Snowy Owl, a bird well-adapted to a cold and arid habitat. But things may soon be getting even harder for this raptor and all the plants and animals that depend on the Arctic for survival. With the mean annual temperatures in the Arctic having increased at almost double the rate of the average recorded across the globe, the future of the Snowy Owl and many other arctic species may be in peril. More than ever, arctic species need our help and support.
What they eat
Snowy Owls love to eat lemmings, voles, and other small rodents and need to eat several a day just to survive. During breeding season, a family of Snowy Owls can consume dozens of lemmings a day, or more!
Snowy Owls, like most predators, are very opportunistic, which means they will hunt just about anything that they can catch. They have been known to hunt other mammals, such as squirrels and hares, and birds, including ptarmigan and seabirds. When they can find them, the owls will even take fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and insects.
Snowy Owls have several effective hunting strategies. Usually they perch on posts, rocks or on the ground, silently watching for their next meal. They can spend a good part of their day sitting and waiting. Or, they may fly low over the ground in search of something to eat. When they spot something appetizing moving along the ground, they swoop down onto their prey. When hunting birds they take their quarry directly in the air or, when hunting fish, they will snatch them up from the surface of the water. They have even been known to snatch prey while walking on the ground.
Nest, eggs and young
Before nesting even begins, it is the male’s job to attract a female. He does so in a number of ways: first, when a female is around, the male will show off his aerobatic skills by flying in a low, rippling, up and down flight pattern. On the ground, he will perform an odd “dance” where he bobs and bows and ruffles up his feathers. Finally, the males try to impress the females with their hunting skills – capturing prey and bringing it to the female that catches their eye.
After a male and female form a pair, it is time to start getting their nest ready. These large owls tend to nest almost exclusively on the ground. They don’t construct their nests, instead the female scrapes a small depression in the ground in which to lay her eggs. Nest spots are usually chosen because they are slightly elevated, which helps gives the owls a good vantage point from which to watch for predators.
Snowy Owls are very protective of their nests and young and will often scare away any threatening animals that come too close, including gulls, foxes and even wolves. Some other species of birds will nest next to Snowy Owls to take advantage of their skills at chasing away predators!
Once the nest is ready, it is time for the female to lay her eggs. The number of eggs she lays and the number of chicks that survive depends on how much food is available before and during breeding season. In good years, owls may lay many eggs, and in bad years they may not lay any at all. Generally, females can lay between 1 and 9 or more eggs in a single clutch. Now, that is a lot of eggs! After the eggs are laid, the female will spend 31-33 days sitting on them to keep them warm. At this time, it is the male's job to bring back food for himself and the female. Once the chicks hatch, the male will have many, many mouths to feed.
The female usually lays each egg about 2-5 days apart. She starts incubation when the first egg is laid, which means that that embryo starts to develop right away. As a result, the young owlets all hatch at different times, so siblings can range greatly in age and size.
Snowy Owls nest on the ground, so it is much easier for the young to leave the nest because they don't have to fly to do so. They usually start leaving the nest at 3-4 weeks, but do not master the art of flying until they are about 8 weeks old.
The parents will care for their young for about 4 months until the young owls are able to hunt and survive on their own. After two years, these young will be old enough to find a mate, settle down and raise young on their own.
Snowy Owls are not often seen in Idaho, except in winter, and usually in the northern portion of the state. However, in the winter of 2011, at least two Snowy Owls were observed close to Boise. They spent several weeks hanging out in an open farm field and were a big hit, attracting many birders and wildlife enthusiasts hoping to catch a glimpse of these birds.
Snowy Owl and The World Center for Birds of Prey
The visitor center at our World Center for Birds of Prey has owls among its avian ambassadors, including a Eurasian Eagle Owl. This is a great chance to see owls up close and learn about the wonderful and interesting adaptations that enable them to survive in their respective habitats. There is also a touch table with owl feathers and other natural objects available for exploration.