Snowy Owls are in the Order
Strigiformes and the Family Strigidae which groups them together
with "true owls". They are monochromatic which means that males and
females look alike. They are large (23 inches, 58 cm), nocturnal
predatory birds. Snowy Owls are white all over with some dark
barring and spots, a large round head and yellow eyes. Immature
Snowy Owls have bold black barring.
The breeding range of Snowy Owls
extends from northern Alaska throughout the Canadian Arctic Islands.
Their wintering range extends south from the breeding range to
southern Canada and northern United States. They can be found in
patches throughout central California and the Gulf states. Snowy
Owls live in areas of open tundra which are near tree lines to the
edge of polar seas. They prefer open farmlands, marshes and meadows.
Their nests have been spotted near sea level to mountain slopes.
Snowy Owls eat mostly mammals,
ranging from small rodents to large hares. They will also eat
passerine nestlings and meduim-sized geese. Some times they will eat
fish and other aquatic animals, but that is less common. Snowy Owls
forage by swooping. This means they snatch food from the ground in
their talons after they have glided downwards from a perch with
their wings spread.
Snowy Owls hunt
prey at night and because of this have adapted hearing
that allows them to better sense their prey. A ruff of
feathers is located just outside the ears which acts as
a reflector to channels sounds into the ears. Once a
sound is heard, the owl can pinpoint a location with 1.5
degrees in both the horizontal and vertical planes. Owls
also have the ability to be silent hunters because of
the structural modification of the first primary feather
on each wing. The edge of the feather is serrated,
instead of being smooth, which disrupts the flow of air
over the wing in flight. This disrupts the vortex heard
when air flows over a smooth surface thus, making them
silent flyers. During courtship
displays, the male performs a jerky, undulating
courtship flight that ends in a near vertical landing.
When they are on the ground, the male will stiffly dance
with his wings spread while holding a dead rodent. Snowy
Owls have a monogamous mating system and have one brood
per year. The female will build a nest on a hummock,
especially on a bare-topped gravel bank. It is usually
minimally lined. Many times geese and eiders will nest
near the Snowy Owls for protection against the Arctic
Fox. The female will lay 3-4 white eggs and will be
responsible incubating the eggs for the 32-34 day
period. The young hatch asynchronously and the
first can be nearly fledge by the time the last nestling
is hatched. Young are semialtricial which means they are
downy, blind, immobile and fed by their parents. Both
sexes tend to young until they are ready to fledge which
occurs 16 days after hatching. Many times, the females
will stay together until the fall.
Snowy Owls are a nomadic species
constantly moving and because of this they are not
always seen in WNY. However, if they are seen it is
usually during the winter in open areas where they
prefer to hunt.