Snowy Owls: White Winter Wanderers

The Great Outdoors | January 1, 2020
Snowy Owl

By Jackie Scharfenberg, Forest Naturalist, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Photo © Michael Gäbler / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Ah, the balmy Wisconsin winters make for a perfect retreat from the harsh Arctic weather for us snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus)!


We spend most of our lives hunting the treeless tundra north of the Arctic Circle. In certain years, many of us head south for the winter, which baffles scientists. They think it depends on the population of our favorite food; lemmings. We can consume more than 1,600 of those tasty rodents each year. When lemming populations crash our food source becomes scarce. This happens about every four years, and forces a good number of us to fly south.

In good lemming years, the females lay extra eggs, so then our population booms. In those years, many juveniles disperse south. We may arrive as early as mid-October, but usually in mid-November. We leave Wisconsin by the end of March, but some of us can linger until April or early May.

Our Appearance

We sport a coat of thick, mostly white, feathers. When young, we have a lot of dark brown barring. Our females keep most of these dark markings their whole lives, while males turn almost pure white as they age. With our large bodies (20-28 inches tall) and thick feathers, we outweigh great horned owls by about a pound and great grey owls (the tallest North American owl) by two times as much. We tip the scales at 3.5 to 6.5 pounds. Females grow larger than males.

Our four to five foot wing spans allow us to fly silently, and quickly, after our prey. Our bright, yellow eyes work great to spy unsuspecting animals. Our highly sensitive ears pick up scurrying critters even under the snow. The thick feathers covering our bodies, including our feet, help keep us warm during frigid temperatures.

Our Habitat

We feel most comfortable in wide open spaces with a rolling terrain; this includes our southern winter homes. Look for us on frozen lakes, at airports, in farm fields, golf courses, and grasslands. We roost on just about anything from the ground, rocks and dirt clumps to haybales, fence posts, telephone poles, muskrat houses, trees, and silos. We spend a lot of time sitting in one spot for hours, occasionally swiveling our heads or leaning forward and blinking.

Our Diet

We hunt just about anything that moves. Lemmings, voles, mice, rabbits, weasels, muskrats, pigeons, waterfowl, other birds, even flying birds are on our menu. Once we spy a prey, we run or fly to it, and pounce on it with our sharp talons. We swallow it whole, head first, if it’s small enough. You often can see us hunting during the day, but we prefer to hunt at dusk and dawn. Remember that in the summer, the day never ends in the tundra.

Our Lifespan

If our young avoid predators such as foxes, jaegers, dogs, wolves, other large birds, and human obstacles, they may live more than ten years.

If you spy one of us snowy owls this winter,
remember to give us space and do not disturb us.

Instead, check us out from a distance with a pair of binoculars.

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