The Snowy Owl is arguably the most iconic of all the owls, and why wouldn't it be. Pristine white plumage and beautifully dark, soulful eyes, no wonder it is the marketeers number one bird for portraying the spirit of Christmas. Ever since its big-screen d├ębut in the Harry Potter franchise the mysticism behind the Snowy owl has grown, but let us not forget that this creature is both a genuine force of nature, and a formidable hunter!

The snowy owl is one of the world’s largest and most powerful owls. It is also the largest bird that inhabits the Arctic region - breeding beyond the tree line on the frozen, barren tundra. It favours areas with rocks or grassy hummocks which the snowy owl uses as lookout posts for spotting prey and predators alike.

The male snowy owl is almost entirely white, with just a few dark flecks on his plumage. The female is more heavily marked, with dark bars on her upper parts, breast and belly. She is also up to one fifth larger, one third heavier and longer claws that the male. This marked difference between the sexes is unique among owls.

What does the snowy owl eat?

In the arctic, the snowy owl feeds mainly on lemming and – to a lesser extent – vole. Elsewhere the snowy owl will eat rabbit, hare and certain birds such as ptarmigan, auk and gull.

Unlike the great majority of owls, the snowy owl rarely hunts during the hours of darkness. Instead, it seeks its prey during the daytime – especially in the twilight of early morning and evening.

After watching from a high perch, the snowy owl glides or hovers over the ground before swooping on to its prey, making the kill with its powerful talons armed with razor-sharp claws.

In the brief Arctic summer, the snowy owl is faced with almost continuous daylight. However, the long Arctic winter brings many hours of darkness and numbing cold, but the owl’s superbly insulating plumage keeps it warm.

Food is scarce during the harsh winter months of the far north, and the snowy owl is capable of fasting for up to forty days at a time. It relies heavily on the thick deposit of fat under its skin that it lays down earlier on in the year, and saves energy by moving as little as possible.


The snowy owl is a wanderer, moving south in winter in very harsh weather and when prey is scarce in the far north. At intervals, the lemmings – which form the main prey species – suffer a dramatic and sudden drop in their population, resulting in the snowy owls moving much further south.

For many years the snowy owl has been a visitor – albeit a rare one – to northern Britain as well as other parts of northern Europe, but in 1967 birdwatchers were thrilled to learn that a pair of snowy owls has nested on the island of Fetlar, in the Shetland Islands. Careful protection enabled this pair to breed with great success. Within eight breeding seasons, they hatched a total of 49 eggs of which 23 young survived. Since that time all the birds have left the island.


The male snowy owl proclaims ownership of his large breeding territory to both rival and prospective mates by bowing violently with his tail cocked, on an elevated ridge or hummock and uttering a series of hollow, booming hoots. These can be heard up to 10km away in the thin Arctic air.

He may chase after rival males and even grapple with them in mid air. A female snowy owl will also defend territory or a potential mate against the interests of other female snowy owls.

The nest is a hollow in the ground, usually on a ridge or outcrop. Like other owl species, the female snowy owl staggers her egg laying. This ensures that the older, stronger chicks will survive during periods of food shortage, by taking most of the food their parents bring to the nest and even killing and eating their younger and weaker siblings.

A food shortage will also affect the number eggs laid. This may range from ten to twelve eggs during plentiful times, down to three or four, or even none at all when lemmings or other prey are scarce

The owlets are covered first with thin white down, but soon acquire a second coat of sooty black down.

At 43 to 50 days old, the young birds can fly and by 60 days they will be able to hunt for themselves. Unfortunately many chicks fall prey to predators such as skua birds and arctic foxes.

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