Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca)

Snowy Owl

Until recently, the Snowy owl was considered the only member of the genus Nyctea. With the advances, in recent years, of molecular biology it has been found that, despite their lack of obvious ear tufts, they are very closely related to the horned owls such as the Great Horned Owl. Consequently, it has been proposed that they are reclassifed as a species in the genus Bubo (Bubo scandiacus).

The Snowy Owl is found north of the limits of trees on the tundras of northern Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska & Canada, below the regions of land perpetually covered with snow & ice. During extremes of winter, particular when there is a scarcity of lemmings & hares (this happens periodically, every 4-5 years), they will migrate southwards & have been known to come as far south as London in the UK (it is possible this was an escaped captive bird), Bermuda in America, Pakistan & Korea. Snowy Owls have been known to breed in Fetlar in the Shetlands, but not since the mid 1970's. In November 2001, a wild Snowy Owl was seen in Suffolk, it was believed to have taken refuge from a storm on a container ship from Quebec, several others have also been seen in Belgium & the Netherlands.

The Snowy Owl is a species protected by special penalties in the UK. Throughout much of America, they are a protected species, but in Alaska it is legal for Alaskan residents to kill an unlimited number of Snowy Owls as long as it is for food or clothing (sale of the bird or parts of the bird is illegal). There is some evidence that Snowy Owls are being killed for their feet and eyes in America, for sale to Asian markets where they are highly valued.

In Snowy Owls the sexes are easily distinguished by their colouring, the males are almost pure white & the females have dark bars across all of the body & wings. It should be noted though that males do have some degree of marking & there are some highly marked males & some lightly marked females, which may be confused (it is the humans looking that get confused, I don't think the owls themselves do). The colouration may act as camouflage to the females when nesting & the lack of marking a similar protection for the males while hunting.

On their head they have small white tufts that can be raised & moved at will. While not a true "eared" owl, the small ear tufts may indicate some distant relationship to eagle owls. There is some discussion at present as to the closeness in relationship to Great Horned Owl (Bubo Virginianus) & to whether it should be reclassifed as Bubo scandiaca.

The Snowy Owls have tyhe appearance of being a large bird, but much of the size is due to a heavy covering of heat retaining feathers. As protection against the cold ground on which it lives, the large feet of the Snowy Owl are also heavily feathered. Some of the individual feathers are up to 1.5 inches long, three time the length of those on the Great Horned Owl (Bubo Virginianus), its nearest rival in terms of feathering on the feet.

Because of its natural habitat in the frozen tundra, these owls will take a large variety of prey, due to its own size, some quite large, from voles to hares to birds up to the size of geese. They will also prey on other raptors such as short-eared owl, peregrine and gyrfalcons and buzzards. (They have also been preyed upon by gyr & peregrine falcons.) When all else fails, they will also eat fish & carrion. Its acute hearing enables it to catch prey under anything up to 10 inches of snow. The main prey of Snowy Owls, however, is lemmings. The Snowy Owls prefered method of hunting is "still-hunting", sitting on a suitable hill or outcrop waiting for the prey to come past, when it will accelerate rapidly & stoop onto the prey. Birds are often taken in flight & fish snatched off the surface of water. When food is very scarce, Snowy Owls can live off their reserves of fat for almost 6 weeks.


In the Harry Potter books, Harry's owl Hedwig is female but in the film version of "Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone", Hedwig is mainly played by a male Snowy Owl (16yrs old, called Ook). I did notice one scene with a female owl.

To anyone who is thinking of buying a Snowy Owl as a pet after seeing the film, please don't. Snowy Owls are not suitable as pets, they take a good deal of specialised care and they are capable of inflicting severe injury. They can also live for a very long time in captivity & unless kept properly, they are very difficult to pass on. It is illegal to release captive bred owls into the wild, & they are very unlikely to survive, so another owner must be found.

To those who have read "Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire", be aware that feeding any owl bacon rind could result in illness & death.

Again because of their location, nesting is usually on the ground, usually on hillocks or rocky outcrops. In Alaska nests may be on tidal flats or slopes near small lakes or marshes. The number of eggs laid varies with the abundance of food, ranging from 3 to 13. Following a particularly lean year, some may not breed at all. In a normal year between 5 & 8 eggs are laid, of which just over half may hatch & survive. Being on the ground, the nests are open to predation by a large number of prey, including Arctic Foxes, Skuas, huskies & Eskimos. The eggs are laid at irregular intervals & incubation starts when the first egg is laid. Incubation is done solely by the female & takes from 32 to 34 days. Initially the male provides all of the food, later both parents are involved. The young are fully fledged around 7-8 weeks after hatching. The first months after leaving its parents are very severe for the young Snowy Owls, as winter is approaching & there is virtually no daylight in the Arctic in that season. One estimate of the average lifespan of the Snowy Owl is 5 years, this is based on the estimates to maintain a stable population given the amount of food available & it may be very low, due to the very high mortality rate in the first year of life. A more reasonable estimate for lifespan in the wild is around 9-12 years. In captivity, a Snowy Owl can live up to 30 years.

As Snowy Owls often hunt close to their nesting site, it has been found that other large birds, such as Snow Geese, which are not normally preyed on, will nest close by. It is thought they are taking advantage of the Snowy Owls keeping other predators, such as Artic Foxes, out of the area.

Unlike many of the other owls, particularly the larger owls, Snowy Owls do not mate for life. They are a very nomadic bird & will have a different territory & different mate each season.

Mythology & Folklore :

In Romania, it is said that the souls of repentant sinners fly to heaven as Snowy Owls.

IUCN Red List Status :

Least Concern (LC)

AOU Data :

Species Number : 376.0
Alpha Code : SNOW
Common Name : Snowy Owl
Longevity Record : 10yrs 9months

Also Called :

Arctic Owl
Great White Owl
White Terror Of The North
Comhachag-bhàn (White Owl)
Cailleach-bhàn (White Owl or lit. White hag) (also used for Barn Owl)
Comhachag-shneachda (Snowy Owl)
Irish Ulchabhán sneachtúil
Catalan Duc blanc
Danish Sneugle
Dutch Sneeuwuil
Esperanto ne^gostrigo
Estonian Lumekakk
Færoese Kattugla
Finnish Tunturipöllö
Harfang des neiges
Chouette harfang
German Schnee-Eule
Hungarian Hóbagoly
Icelandic Snæugla (with thanks to Margrét Berg Sverrisdóttir)
Italian Gufo delle nevi
Lappish (Sami) Jievjaskuolfi
Baltā Pūce
Sniega Pūce
Lithuanian Baltoji Pelėda
Norwegian Snøugle
Polish Sowa śnieżna
Portuguese Bufo-branco
Russian Белая Сова (Belaya Sova)
Spanish Búho Nival
Swedish Fjälluggla
Inupiaq (Alaskan Eskimo) Ukpik
Yupik (Siberian Eskimo) Anipa
Chinese bai ye maozi (White Night Cat) (See Comments 2003 for discussion on this name.)
Japanese shiro fukuroo (White Owl)

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