Snowy Owl Telemetry Research Project
About Snowy Owls
The Snowy Owl is an amazing combination of graceful beauty and efficient predator. It is perfectly suited for life in the Arctic, where temperatures in winter can reach -80°F. The breeding season begins in May and the young owls start to move in September.
Snowy Owls are the largest North American owl, and one of the largest owls in the world. Males are smaller and usually have less dark markings than the females. They are 20” – 28” in length, have a wing span of 54” – 66” and weigh 3.25lb. – 6.5lb.
During breeding season, the owls inhabit the open tundra, and can be found all the way around the Arctic Circle. Their main food source is voles, lemmings and other small rodents, as well as birds.
The Snowy Owl hovers, twisting its head as it searches for small rodents and other prey. Photo
© Norman Smith.
They are diurnal — hunting during the day — on the summer breeding grounds, as it is daylight 24 hours a day. But in winter, like most other nocturnal owls, they prefer to hunt during the hours of darkness. Unlike most raptors that use thermals to stay aloft, Snowy Owls hunt for food by hovering in the air looking for prey. They will also watch for prey from a perch. Like all owls, their eyes are enormous in proportion to their head, taking up most of their skull. Owls cannot move their eyes, so they must turn their entire head to shift their gaze. This is why they need to be able to turn their head around so far. With 14 neck vertebrae, they can swivel their head a full 270°!
Owls have upper and lower eyelids, as well as a third eyelid — called a nictitating membrane — that cleans and protects their eyes. Snowy Owls have deep yellow eyes, with an upper eyelid that projects, keeping the sun out of their eyes.
The face and beak of Snowy Owls are covered with feathers so thin and fine that they look like fur. Their use is the same as fur - insulation.
They also have "ear tufts" like some other owls, though very small. These tufts have nothing to do with the owls' ears, which are much lower and further forward. Scientists speculate that they might help to camouflage the owl by breaking up the rounded shape of their head.
Owls have 4 toes with long sharp talons. The Snowy Owl's legs and feet are difficult to see, as they are covered with the same fine feathers as their face. In fact, this heavy covering of feathers has made it difficult to read the owls' leg bands without recapturing the owl.
As you can see, most Snowy Owls are not snowy white. In fact, they range from all white, to having dark, prominent bars all over - except on the face, which is always white.