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Snowy Owl
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Snowy Owl

Facts about the Snowy Owl

Family: Strigidae
Length: Males:  53.1 to 70.7 cm; Females:  63 to 76.7 cm
Wing span: Males:  157.7 cm; Females:  164.4 cm
Weight: Males:  1,612.9 g; Females:  1,706.7 g
Lifespan: 9 years

  • The head can turn almost completely around (270 degrees) to compensate for the immovable eyes, which restrict the field of vision. 
  • The eyes are yellow.  The Snowy Owl has excellent diurnal and nocturnal vision.  It can detect movement from a kilometer away. 
  • Hearing is remarkable.  Sounds are picked up, reflected and amplified by the facial disc. 
  • Powerful legs and toes are both very heavily feathered. 
  • Plumage is bright white, barred and spotted with dark brown in females and juveniles.  Adult males are almost entirely white.  Coloration lightens with age in both sexes. 

The Snowy Owl is easily identified by its bulky body and round head lacking ear tufts.  Size and colour, however, are the features that most distinguish it from other owls. 

Eggs

The average clutch consists of 5 to 9 eggs.  The quantity varies depending on availability of prey.  It takes the baby owl a day or two to peck through its shell.  It weighs 45 g and is blind for the first 5 days. 

After 10 days, its white down is replaced by a dark grey down.

To court the female, the male glides with its wings in a V-formation then alights beside her with a lemming as an offering.  Snowy owls are monogamous.  Breeding begins at the age of two.  They are usually shy birds except during the nesting period.

Remarkable birds

The Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) was chosen by the National Assembly, in 1987, as the official bird emblem of Québec. 

It is a symbol of the splendour and beauty of Québec winters and emphasizes the importance of environmental conservation.

Tireless hunters

Snowy owls usually survey their hunting grounds from a perch.  Once the prey has been spotted, they swoop down and snatch it up in their powerful talons.  On occasion, they will hunt other birds in flight.  In winter, they hop and jump along the ground to scare up prey burrowed under the snow. 

Snowy owls usually hunt the early and late hours of the day because that’s when lemmings are most active. 

A staple diet of lemmings

The Snowy Owl eats 3 to 5 lemmings a day.  In the course of a breeding season, a family of snowy owls consumes anywhere from 1,900 to 2,600 lemmings.  Snowy owls also feed on other small rodents as well as birds and even carrion if they have to.  They have also been known to go fishing for a meal. 

A lemming looks like a field mouse, the main difference being the lemming’s tail is shorter.  

The warmth of down

The Snowy Owl’s thick down provides ample protection for it to survive the chill of bitter sub-zero temperatures.  Because of its soft and fluffy feathers, it barely makes a sound when it flies so it is very hard to spot when it’s hunting.

Snowy owls swallow their prey whole then regurgitate the indigestible parts, such as fur and bones, in the form of pellets that are often found littering their favourite haunts. 

Snowy owls nest in the Arctic Circle, from North America to Eurasia.  They summer in salt marshes and wetlands, and winter near farmlands and in wide-open country.  The territory of these birds of prey can range from 1.6 km2 to 6.5 km2.

Hunter or hunted?

During the nesting season, Arctic foxes will readily raid a Snowy Owl’s nest, to steal the eggs or attack the owlets that have been left unprotected.  But the Snowy Owl gets its revenge by feasting on a fox cub or two …

SEASON BY SEASON

Spring

In early May, when the tundra is still frozen, the female goes looking for a nesting site in the vicinity of a mound or a stray boulder.  To ensure the safety of her brood, she selects a location that allows her to spot predators from a long way off. 

Egg laying takes place between mid-May and early June.  Since the eggs are laid directly onto the ground, the female must remain on the nest to protect them from the cold.  During the time that she is brooding, the male does all the hunting.

Although few predators threaten the Snowy Owl, they are at risk from Arctic foxes, Pomarine jaegers and trophy hunters.  But it is lack of food that is the greatest threat to the survival of the snowy owl.

Egg laying occurs over a period of several days.  The female begins to brood as soon as the first egg is laid.  This means there’s a lag of several days between the time the first egg and the last egg hatches.  Each egg requires a 32-day incubation period.   

Summer

The owlets spend the summer in their parents’ care.  When a predator threatens the brood, the parents will first try to fend it of by pretending to have a broken wing.  If the intruder persists, it runs the risk of being soundly pecked and clawed. 

Although the young owls begin leaving the nest between the 14th and 26th day, the parents will continue to feed them until they are 60 days old.  The female resumes her hunting activities as soon as the youngest owlet has left the nest. 

From the day an owlet hatches until it becomes self-reliant, it will consume over 150 full-grown lemmings.

Fall - Winter

Snowy owls are not considered migrating birds and they usually spend the winter in their arctic breeding range. 

When there’s a lack of food, however, many will relocate to southern localities such as the Canadian prairies and the central northern regions of the United States where prey is more plentiful.  During the winter season, snowy owls are frequent visitors to southern Québec. 

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