This post is from Hugh Powell, science editor with Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Learn more about him here.
Hi from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology! As you may have heard, this winter is shaping up to be a great one for snowy owls, and in this post I’d like to spend a little time with these gorgeous birds.
Normally, snowy owls spend their summers up at the very northernmost fringe of the world, in the arctic tundra. They visit the U.S. most winters, but in low numbers. This year is one of the best in memory—they’ve been seen from Nova Scotia to the Olympic Peninsula and as far south as Missouri. Have you seen one yet? Here are a few things you might not know about this great white owl, and a video to whet your appetite.
1 They aren’t cold. Remember, any snowy owl you see this winter is about as far south as it ever goes. Snowy owls live through dark, frigid winters, and sit through minus 40 degree nights without flinching. Regardless of how cold you might be, they really aren’t fazed by a 15-degree day in the Lower 48.
2. They’re owls of the daytime—as you might expect for a bird that hails from the land of the midnight sun. Perhaps that’s why they don’t have quite as thrilling a hoot as their nocturnal kin. Instead, they make simple, hoarse whoos or excitable squawks that don’t seem to fit their regal bearing. Listen to them at our Macaulay Library site (here’s a hoot and a squawk).
3 They eat a lot of lemmings. Snowy owls are excellent hunters, and they make the most of the Arctic’s prodigious supplies of lemmings. They pounce on them, take them on the wing, even snatch them from under the snow, finding them by sound alone if they need to. A single adult may eat 300 pounds of lemmings per year, feeding its brood of “owlets” another 1,500 lemmings before they leave home. In winter, some switch to eating ptarmigan and waterfowl. John James Audubon reportedly saw one lying on its belly and catching fish from a rock.
4 The males and females look different (don’t tell Harry Potter). As with most raptors, females are substantially bigger than males. At up to 6.5 pounds, females are the biggest owls by weight in North America. Females are also more heavily barred with black than the males, which get paler throughout their lives. An all-white Snowy Owl is pretty much always an older male (apologies to Harry Potter, but Hedwig was a male all along.)
5 This is the best year to see one in ages, and we can help. Here’s a confession: I’ve never seen a snowy owl in real life before. But this year maybe my luck will change. By using eBird, our free online checklist program, I can check and see where other bird watchers have seen snowy owls near me. You can get your own map to the nearest snowy owl, too: Zoom in toward your hometown, and you’ll see markers showing sightings so far this month.
6 If you can’t find them outdoors, there’s always the Internet. Check out this video made by my friend Gerrit Vyn, in our Multimedia program, and spend a little quality time with these silent visitors from the great white north. (Oh, and watch the owl pairs, too, to see if you can pick out the smaller, whiter males from the bigger, darker females):
I’d love to hear your stories about seeing snowy owls in the comments!