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Five Fast Facts About Treasured Snowy Owls

Snowy owls are one of those birds that people get excited about. One of the things that makes them so special is their rarity in northern Illinois.

A snowy owl sitting on the snowy ground with trees in the background.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

Snowy owls are only seen in northern Illinois in the winter, limiting our opportunities to catch a glimpse of them. They also don't migrate south in the same numbers each year. Some years sightings in Illinois are few and far between, but other years they are here in much greater numbers than usual. These are called irruption years, and they typically happen every three to five years based on the food supply in their Arctic breeding grounds.

Learn more about what makes snowy owls so special in the bird world with these five facts.

Their snowy white color can vary

Snowy owls are, of course, white, but not uniformly so. When they are young, the owls are mostly white with dark brown barring. The females will keep some of their dark barring throughout their lives, but the males get whiter as they age. Females and young males can look similar in appearance because of their dark markings, but the most heavily barred owls are females and the whitest owls are males.


Words to know

Diurnal: During the day.

Rarity: The state of being rare.

Reliant: Depending on someone or something.


In the Harry Potter series of stories, Harry has a female pet snowy owl named Hedwig. In the movies, Hedwig is portrayed by an almost pure white snowy owl. This means the owl playing Hedwig was male, although Hedwig’s character was written as female.

They aren't nocturnal

When we think of owls, we think about mysterious creatures of the night. But snowy owls aren't nocturnal. Instead, they are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day. They aren't exclusively diurnal, however. They are known to hunt at all hours of the day.

Snowy owls are especially active during the day in the summer. In their Arctic breeding grounds, there is daylight around the clock for some parts of the season. During this time, there is no darkness, and owls and other animals have adapted their habits for this 24-hour daylight. Although they can be active at any time of day, snowy owls are typically most active at dusk and dawn.

They can really eat

Like many owls, snowy owls are carnivores, mostly eating small mammals and birds. Although they eat a variety of animals, they do have a favorite — lemmings. Lemmings are small rodents similar to moles. In their breeding grounds, snowy owls can eat three to five lemmings a day, or as many as 1,600 during their breeding season.

Because snowy owls are so reliant on lemmings as a food source, their population cycles are linked. The population of lemmings in the Arctic undergoes a natural cycle of highs and lows every three to five years, and the snowy owl population tends to follow this cycle. When lemming populations are low, snowy owls may wait until the population rebounds to lay eggs. When the lemming population is high, snowy owls will usually lay more eggs.

They wear slippers of sorts

Snowy owls spend their summers in the Arctic and winters in places with cold climates, so they need to protect themselves against frigid temperatures. One way they do this is with feathers that cover their feet. The feathers act as insulation, protecting their feet from the cold. Other birds with feathered feet to help keep them warm include golden eagles and ptarmigans.

A snowy owl coming in for a landing  on the snow with its wings and legs outstretched.
Look at the feathers on the feet of this snowy owl. (Photo via Shutterstock)

It's not just their feet that benefit from the warmth of their feathers. Snowy owls are the heaviest owl because of the cumulative weight of their thick feathers, which help insulate them against the cold. They typically weigh about 4 pounds, which is 1 pound more than a great horned owl and twice as much as a great gray owl, which is the tallest of North America's owl species.

They mate for life

Most animals do not form pairs for life, but snowy owls often do. However, when the food supply is good, males may mate with two females. Snowy owls usually breed between May and September, but they may select a mate and establish breeding pairs even before leaving their wintering grounds or soon after arriving back in the Arctic.

A snowy owl chick sitting on the grass-covered ground.
A snowy owl chick. (Photo via Shutterstock)

The male partner will select a territory, and the female will pick a spot to build a nest. Snowy owls nest on the ground, and females build the nests by scraping a shallow hole on the ground. She will usually lay between three and 11 eggs, with more eggs laid when the food supply is good. The chicks hatch about 32 to 34 days later, and both the male and female feed the chicks and protect the nest. Males will hunt for food and bring it back to the nest, while females will rip the food into small pieces the chicks can eat. The chicks leave the nest two to three weeks after hatching, before they are able to fly. They stay close to their parents for several more weeks, until they can hunt on their own.


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