Map

Map: Snowy owl range

Snowy Owl Range

Audio

Fast Facts

Type:
Bird
Diet:
Carnivore
Average life span in the wild:
9.5 years
Size:
Body, 20 to 28 in (52 to 71 cm); wingspan, 4.2 to 4.8 ft (1.3 to 1.5 m)
Weight:
3.5 to 6.5 lbs (1.6 to 3 kg)
Group name:
Solitary
Did you know?
Unlike most owls, which are nocturnal, snowy owls are diurnal—they hunt and are active both day and night.
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: Snowy owl compared with adult man

The ghostlike snowy owl has unmistakable white plumage that echoes its Arctic origins.

These large owls breed on the Arctic tundra, where females lay a clutch of 3 to 11 eggs. Clutch size depends upon the availability of food, and in particularly lean times a usually monogamous pair of owls may not breed at all. Parents are territorial and will defend their nests against all comers—even wolves.

Young owls, especially males, get whiter as they get older. Females are darker than males, with dusky spotting, and never become totally white. Some elderly males do become completely white, though many retain small flecks of dusky plumage.

The snowy owl is a patient hunter that perches and waits to identify its prey before soaring off in pursuit. Snowy owls have keen eyesight and great hearing, which can help them find prey that is invisible under thick vegetation or snowcover. The owls deftly snatch their quarry with their sharp talons.

A snowy owl's preferred meal is lemmings—many lemmings. An adult may eat more than 1,600 lemmings a year, or three to five every day. The birds supplement their diet with rabbits, rodents, birds, and fish.

These magnificent owls sometimes remain year-round in their northern breeding grounds, but they are frequent migrants to Canada, the northern United States, Europe, and Asia. Lemming availability may determine the extent of southern migration, when owls take up summer residence on open fields, marshes, and beaches.

Bird Features

  • Illustration: Great horned owl

    What's That Bird?

    Identify your backyard visitors in a flash! Just answer four simple questions to search our database of 150 backyard birds common to Canada and the U.S.

  • Photo: A brown pelican

    Pelican

    Explore the pelican’s prodigious pouch. Find out how these famous fishers bring home the catch of the day.

  • Photo: Close-up of a duck

    Bird Pictures

    Get right up close to 12 colorful new bird galleries, featuring photos from My Shot members and classic art from the NG archives.

  • Photo: Close-up of a hummingbird

    Backyard Birds Quiz

    How much do you know about the feathered visitors to your backyard? Put your avian IQ to the test with this quiz.

Photos

  •  Picture of a Malayan tiger

    Pictures: Tiger Subspecies

    Scientists estimate only about 3,000 wild tigers are left in the entire world. Meet the subspecies and see what threats each is facing.

See more animal photos »

From the Magazine

  • Photo of the lions of the Vumbi pride.

    The Surprising Lives of Lions

    In case you missed it: See these breathtaking videos and photos from inside a wild Serengeti pride.

  • Photo: Two adult preen, Ireland

    Gannets Pictures

    Champion divers but clumsy landers, doting parents but hostile neighbors—northern gannets abound in contradictions.