Snowy Owl

Nyctea scandiaca

snowy_owl.jpg

snowy owl
MDC Staff
Family

Strigidae (typical owls) in the order Strigiformes (owls)

Description

Large, white owls with rounded heads (no ear tufts) and yellow eyes. The ample plumage on their legs makes them look bulky at the base. Most of the snowy owls that visit our state are immature individuals forced south during winter for lack of food; these younger owls have extensive black barring on their otherwise white body and head. Adults, especially males, are very white with some barring. Females can have almost equal amounts of black and white.

Size

Length: 20–25 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail); wingspan: 4½ to 5 feet.

snowy_owl_watch_1-12-12.jpg

Photo of people watching for snowy owls on open ground near Smithville Lake.
Snowy Owl Watch at Smithville Lake Eagle Days

snowy_owl_2_12-21-11.jpg

Photo of a snowy owl perched on a tree branch
Snowy Owl in Tree

snowy_owl_12-21-11.jpg

Photo of a snowy owl perched on the top of a clay chimney.
Snowy Owl on Chimney

Snowy Owl

Photo of a snowy Owl on standing on a rock.
Snowy Owl on Rock
Snowy owls are rare in Missouri. This one was observed at Smithville Lake near Kansas City in December 2013.

snowy_owl_in_corn_stubble.jpg

Photo of a snowy owl standing amid ice-covered corn stubble.
Snowy Owl in Corn Stubble
This snowy owl was seen resting in a snow-covered corn field near Kirksville during December 2013.
Habitat and conservation

The snowy owl only occasionally visits our state in the winter, generally in years when when food runs low in its arctic range. Thus most of the snowy owls seen in Missouri are immature individuals forced south for lack of food. Peak numbers in Missouri occur about every four years in response to lemming population crashes in far north. Only a small portion (usually immature individuals) are forced south. Snowy owls are most active during the day. In Missouri, they prefer open grasslands. They perch on the ground, on fence posts, or on hay bales. Because these tundra dwellers are not used to the dangers of power lines, people, and cars, please don't approach them; if you're driving and see a large white bird near the road, please slow down to avoid hitting them.

Foods

In their arctic habitat, they forage in grasslands and tundra for lemmings, ptarmigan, and waterfowl. They rely especially on lemmings, and when populations of those rodents are high, snowy owl populations rise. When lemming populations crash, the owls move south in search of prey. Here, they may eat rabbits, squirrels and other rodents, mink and muskrats, and waterfowl and other birds, usually by sitting patiently on a fence post or other vantage point and looking and listening for prey.

image of Snowy Owl distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Although snowy owls might show up anywhere in the state, they are most likely to be seen in our northern counties.

Status

Rare, sporadic winter visitor. Appears in Missouri during some winters and not others. This species' North American population is hard to estimate. Although their breeding territory is in the arctic tundra and faces little encroachment by people, climate change many affect them and/or the species they prey upon. Aside from habitat loss, the greatest threats to this bird are shooting and car collisions. This species occurs all around the Arctic Circle, including northern portions of North America and of Eurasia.

Life cycle

This owl nests on the ground in open tundra in its circumpolar summer range. When they visit Missouri, snowy owls usually appear between mid-November and February, although there are records in October and April. A clutch comprises 3–11 eggs, which are incubated for about a month. After hatching, they fledge after 18–25 days.

Human connections

Although snowy owls do not occur in the United Kingdom, except as accidental visitors to its far northern reaches, a snowy owl named Hedwig is prominently featured in the Harry Potter books and movies. Composer John Williams's "Hedwig's Theme" is usually considered the main theme song of all the movies. In the stories, Hedwig is a female, but she was portrayed by male owls in the movies, because they are whiter and smaller.

Ecosystem connections

Owls help control populations of small mammals. Snowy owls' varying range, due to changes in prey populations, shows the interconnection between predator and prey, and how a scarcity of one can effect the fortunes of the other. When lemmings are scarce, they "control" populations of their predators!