Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl
(Bubo scandiacus)

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Strigiformes
Family: Strigidae
Genus: Nyctea
Species: scandiaca

The snowy Owl is a species in a genus all it’s own. Although it’s exact evolutionary origins are unknown, it is widely thought to be most closely related to owls of the genus Bubo, such as the Great horned Owl.

Distinguishing characteristics:

Often seen even during the day, perching right on the ground or on a low perch such as a fence post; this species is unmistakable even at a glance. This largely white owl with piercing yellow eyes is the largest owl species found in North America. Although this species appears to have no ear tufts, it has very short rudimentary ones that are barely even visible amongst the plumage of the otherwise round appearing head. The adult males appear almost pure unblemished white, especially at a distance; while the immature individuals and adult females are much more heavily speckled with varying shades of brown or black.

Habitat and natural range:

The Snowy owl, being a polar species; has a strictly circumpolar distribution. This means that this species is found at the same polar latitudes right around the globe. During the short polar summer season, this species remains confined to the high Arctic. It is only during winters when periodic ‘eruption years’ occur that the Snowy Owl is commonly seen south of the tree line. This phenomenon is mainly due to the cyclic ‘crash’ of the Snowy Owl’s main food source, namely the lemming; and to a lesser degree the severity of winter weather conditions. During these ‘invasion’ years, the Snowy Owl can be seen as far south as the northern states, and is even considered a regular visitor to the great plains states. Being a species of open spaces, when south of it’s treeless tundra habitat the Snowy Owl can be found in almost any open expanse; be it grassland, over frozen bodies of water, or even in farmer’s fields! Wherever this species is seen, it can usually be noted that it prefers to select a low perch. Even a slight rise in the ground is sufficient. In the Arctic, the snowy Owl shows a distinct preference for perching on ‘hummocks’, raised protrusions of frozen permafrost that appear as small mounds of earth.

Natural diet:

This species is famous for it’s almost complete dependence for sustenance on the various species of lemmings. However, the Snowy Owl also takes a variety of other small rodents, particularly during it’s southward excursions; and even is known to prey upon Arctic hares and ptarmigan.


This species usually selects a ‘hummock as a nesting site. Merely scratching away the thin layer of lichen or moss, thus exposing the bare permafrost beneath to form a scrape in order to receive the eggs, which often rest against this bare frozen surface. The clutch size of this species seems directly related to the availability of prey supplied by the male. Thus in years of prey abundance, the Snowy owl is known to lay a huge clutch of eggs, with as many as 16 being recorded at a single site. However during lean times, clutch size is reduced dramatically. In ‘crash’ years breeding activity often ceases altogether. Incubation in this species lasts only 28 days and begins with the first egg laid. As a result, in large clutches it is possible to find young in all stages of development, from newly hatched young to young almost ready to fledge.

Notes on Captive propagation (at the Centre):

This species is currently the focus of a concerted captive propagation effort at the Centre. It has taken a number of years to ‘work out all the bugs’. We started out with 3 different blood lines, and when an aviary contains a given years fledged offspring, the sight that our keepers experience is worthy of mention. When it becomes necessary for a staff member to open an aviary door, the sight of a large clutch of young Snowy Owls all staring at the human while in close proximity to each other is strongly reminiscent of that well known scene from the end of the movie ‘Close Encounters of the third kind’, with a multitude of wide eyed aliens (the owls), all with heads bobbing at the same time in a manner most comical.

Circumstances affecting Conservation:

The Snowy Owl is listed by CITES (the convention on the international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora) as Appendix II or threatened. Being a species native to our delicate Arctic ecosystem, the Snowy Owl is very vulnerable to any damage to it’s habitat. With the ongoing development of our Arctic resources, as well as human encroachment on it’s habitat, there is the ever increasing risk that should any major ecological disaster ever occur the Snowy owl’s currently stable population would crash. This is due to the fact that the Arctic is very slow to recover from damages caused to the environment. Without extensive efforts to continually captive propagate this species already in place, the Snowy Owl, as well as other fragile Arctic species; could easily be lost forever.


If you have found an injured bird of prey (hawk, falcon, owl, etc.), contact the Centre and our experienced staff can assist in determining what steps should be taken to ensure the bird receives the best possible care.



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