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Native to the Arctic regions, the beautiful snowy owl is not seen often (Harry Potter movies aside). However, once in a while, this rare visitor from the tundra will migrate farther south. Learn all about the elusive snowy owl—and see some stunning photos of these magical creatures.
Where Snowy Owls Live
These large circumpolar owls live in the Arctic in open tundra. Because it’s flat and treeless in their native habitat, snowy owls tend to perch right on the ground or on short posts.
Snowy owls are an irruptive species, meaning that while they do not migrate every year; when they do, it’s an influx of a species into a place they don’t usually live. Snowy owls seem to migrate every 4 or 5 years for reasons we don’t fully understand. It’s a little unpredictable and always a surprise!
Scientists have debated the reason why snowy owls fly south, some attributing the flights to starvation, unusually cold Arctic temperatures and weather, or an abundance of young hatch-year owlets.
However, Massachusetts Audubon scientist Norm Smith has banded more than 700 snowy owls since 1981 and has never had a single year where hatch-year owls showed any signs of starvation. Some owls can be classified as “morbidly fat” according to Scott Weidensaul, a Project Snowstorm researcher and distinguished author. In other words, it’s unlikely that the owls are starving.
Lemmings, a type of small rodent, are the preferred food of the snowy owl. According to Norm Smith, more snowy owls irrupt (migrate) southward following a lemming boom, not a bust. High lemming birth rates lead to greater nesting success for snowy owls and the vast majority of irruptions include hatch-year owlets. In boom years for lemmings, female snowy owls are known to lay up to 13 eggs, far above the norm of 3 to 5. In years with low lemming densities, the owls do not nest. Snowy owls are very protective around the nest and will even attack wolves and men.
It’s also unlikely that the snowy owls are freezing. These birds are tough. Those that remain in the Arctic can survive temperatures 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. In a research project, a snowy owl was subjected to temperatures of -135°F, colder than temperatures ever recorded on the planet. The bird survived these lethal temperatures by burning calories at 5 times its normal rate. That’s a lot of lemmings! New technology has allowed researchers to fit snowy owls with satellite transmitters, which have shown that many of the owls remain in the Arctic, preying on ducks and seabirds in pools of water between Arctic sea ice.
It turns out that many owls actually fly north in the winter to hunt the ducks which collect in open pools between banks of Arctic ice. Perhaps it’s the warming climate that may be making such hunting impossible, forcing many more snowies southward to find food in our backyards. What’s a feast for photographers this winter may spell eventual famine for these owls.
Where Do You See Snowy Owls?
If you spot a snowy owl, it may be perched on the ground—in an open field, on the beach, on an airplane runway, or even in a shopping store parking lot. In 2013, one snowy owl was captured at Boston’s Logan Airport. Fitted with a transmitter, the owl was tracked on its spring flight northward from April 18 to June 6th near Baffin Island before returning to Logan Airport five months later.
How to Identify Snowy Owls
These very large owls—which visit from a harsher, unintelligible world—almost seem to be dressed up as a fluffy white cuddly child’s toy! The strange gaze coming at you out of those narrowed eye-slits, bright yellow around coal-black centers, manages to be both comically nearsighted and frighteningly alien.
Their large size is similar to the size of a Great Horned Owl, sometimes bigger. Snowy owls can reach up to 27 inches in height, with a 49- to 51-inch wingspan, and can weigh between 40 and 70 ounces.
This, you think, is a bird that’s not afraid of man nor beast. Its beak is hardly visible behind its muffling facial feathers, yet it yawns to reveal a amoxicillin-pink mouth and tongue. Enormous feet, its main weaponry, are covered in thick feathers: danger walks around in white slippers.
This is the only owl with largely white plumage. Adult males are smaller and paler than females; they become whiter as they age. The female owl will be the parent to sit on the nest and requires more coloration for camouflage and larger size for protecting her eggs. She’ll have more black markings which can give her a salt-and-pepper look. Young owls are heavily marked with black and brown streaks.
They hunt during the day to eat their beloved lemmings as well as rodents, rabbits, and birds. Females attack larger prey. We have observed a snowy owl killing a great black-backed gull and at one time stealing food from a peregrine falcon sitting in a tree on Plum Island, Massachusetts. Another snowy owl was observed swimming in Hamilton Harbor, Ontario, Canada, after being attacked by a pair of peregrine falcons and one in Wisconsin was observed hauling a common merganser back to land using a butterfly swimming stroke.
Man is the primary enemy of the snowy owl. In the early 1900s, 1,000 snowy owls were shot annually in Ontario. Today, they are protected and winter mortality is usually caused by collisions with cars, utility wires, and aircraft.
When Will the Next Great Snowy Owl Irruption Be?
Some of you may recall when thousands of snowy owls descended in the winter of 2013–14. Snowy owls started showing up in the hundreds from Oregon to Louisiana, New England to Bermuda. It was the largest snowy owl irruption that the U.S. had seen since the 1920s.
Then, in late November 2017, snowy owls were spotted in the Northeast in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In early December 2017, a small number appeared in the Upper Midwest. Single birds were spotted as far south as Oklahoma, Missouri, and North Carolina.
Based on the 4-5 year cycle, many birders anticipated the next irruption to be this winter (2022–2023). However, according to early reports from the Midwest, it has been a rather slow year for sightings so far. It’s thought that this could be due to the relatively poor summer feeding season brought about by a lower population of lemmings. Fewer lemmings means fewer owls, and combined with the threat of avian flu, results in fewer owl sightings in the southern reaches of their range.
If you do see a snowy owl, they often act surprisingly “tame” around their human admirers. It’s often their first visit to Civilization! This allows close observation, offering great opportunities for both naturalists and photographers. As you can see from these photos from the 2013–14 invasion, the snowy owls seem almost to play to the camera.
Credit: Andre Moraes, New Hampshire. 2013–14 Invasion.
If you hear about a snowy owl appearance, drop everything! Harry Potter’s bird is a rare and magical sight indeed.