snowy owl

Nature Time with Pine - Short Video on Owls

Creature Feature - Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca)

What's large and white with a big round head and yellow eyes? It's a snowy owl. For those of you who are Harry Potter fans, Harry's owl, Hedwig, is a snowy owl.

The snowy owl is probably one of the most easily recognized of the owls that are found in our area. They can be seen in agricultural areas perched on a fencepost waiting for their next meal of rabbit or vole to happen by. It is a diurnal creature, which means that it is active during the daytime, although it will also hunt at night.

snowy owl on fence post

The snowy owl is mostly white in colour, with a round earless head and broad white wings. Their colour can be pure white or white with brown or black bars. Generally, juveniles and females are more heavily barred than adult males. They have yellow eyes, a black bill and heavily feathered feet.

Females are larger than the males. The average female is about 26 inches (66 cm) in length, while the average male is 23 inches (59 cm). Their wingspan ranges from 54 to 65 inches (137 to 164 cm).

When they fly, they have a direct, strong steady flight with very deliberate strokes. They usually make short flights, from one perch to another, normally perching on the ground or a fence post. This is probably due to their hunting style. They generally sit and wait for the prey to come close by. Favourite foods include lemmings, rabbits and voles, but they will also eat fish, carrion and other birds, including Short-eared Owls.

Mating season for snowy owls is March to April. Snowy owls are ground nesting birds, their nests are often just a shallow scrape on the ground lined with vegetation or owl feathers. Nesting sites need to be near good hunting grounds, be snow-free and have a good view of the surrounding areas.

Breeding generally takes place in May. There can be anywhere from five to 14 white eggs laid, depending on the available food supply. If food is scarce, snowy owls may not nest at all. The female incubates the eggs, while the male brings her food and guards the nest. Eggs hatch in 32 to 34 days at two-day intervals.

Young snowy owls are covered in white down. They begin to leave the nest well before they can fly, which is at about 50 to 60 days. Both parents take care of the young and are very protective of their territory. They have been known to attack intruders up to one kilometre away from the nest.

snowy owl on the ice

The snowy owl's habitat is Arctic tundra or open fields. They are not usually found in forested areas. Snowy owls are found throughout the Arctic regions of the North America and Eurasia. In fact, their Latin name, Nyctea scandiaca, refers to Scandinavia where the owl was first observed. During the winter, snowy owls sometimes move into southern Canada and the northern United States. They have been seen as far south as Texas and Georgia.

The snowy owl has some great nicknames – Great White Owl, Ghost Owl, Ermine Owl, Tundra Ghost, Ookpik, Scandinavian Nightbird, and White Terror of the North. This last name is probably because they have few natural enemies and are very successful predators. It is also the official bird of the Province of Quebec, a designation given to the species in 1987.

Snowy owls can live for more than nine years in the wild and up to 35 years in captivity. However, they do not make good pets despite what Harry Potter might lead you to believe.

The Snowy Owl is not considered endangered under the Canada’s Species at Risk Act. In 2017, however, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) elevated the Snowy Owl to “vulnerable” status. The IUCN speculates that the declining population may be attributable to the effect of warming temperatures on prey availability: lemmings are especially sensitive to temperature changes because they depend on deep, fluffy and thick layers of insulating snow to breed successfully.

snowy owl