About Snowy Owls

Snowy Owl on beach dune © Richard Cuzner
Snowy Owl © Richard Cuzner

The snowy owl, the largest owl in North America by body mass, is equal parts graceful beauty and efficient predator.

Where they Live

During breeding season, which begins in May, snowy owls can be found on open tundra all the way around the Arctic Circle. In North America, some of the owls may stay on the breeding grounds through the rest of the year, weathering temperatures as low as -80°F. Others migrate as far south as the northern half of the lower 48 states. In the northeast, snowy owls are regular visitors to New York and New England.

Physical Features

Snowy owls are the largest North American owls, and they’re among the largest owls in the world. They are 20”–28” in length, with a wing span of 54”–66”, and weigh 3.25–6.5 lbs. Males are typically smaller than females.

Despite their name, most snowy owls are not pure snowy white. They range from all white to black and white, with a pattern of dark, prominent bars—except on the face, which is always white. Females typically have more dark markings than males.

The eyes of snowy owls, like those of all owls, are enormous in proportion to their heads. Owls cannot move their eyes, so they must turn their entire heads, which they swivel a full 270° with the help of 14 neck vertebrae. Snowy owls have deep yellow eyes. A protruding upper eyelid acts as a shade from sunlight.

To keep the birds warm, the face, beak, legs, and feet of Snowy Owls are covered with fine, fur-like feathers. This heavy covering of feathers has made it difficult to read the owls' leg bands without recapturing them.

Listen to the sound of a snowy owl:

Snowy Owl Call 65.51 kB

Finding Food

Snowy owls eat voles, lemmings, and other small rodents, as well as birds. On their summer breeding grounds, it’s daylight 24 hours a day, so snowy owls hunt in the light. In the winter they prefer to find food under cover of darkness. They hunt by hovering in the air looking for prey, or by watching for prey from a perch.