Snowy Owl

snowy owl
Scientific Name
Nyctea scandiaca
Strigidae (typical owls) in the order Strigiformes (owls)

Snowy owls are large, white owls with rounded heads (no ear tufts) and yellow eyes. The ample plumage on their legs makes them look bulky at the base. Most of the snowy owls that visit our state are immature individuals forced south during winter for lack of food; these younger owls have extensive black barring on their otherwise white body and head. Adults, especially males, are very white with some barring. Females can have almost equal amounts of black and white.


Length: 20–25 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail); wingspan: 4½ to 5 feet.

Where To Find
Snowy Owl Distribution Map

Although snowy owls might show up anywhere in the state, they are most likely to be seen in our northern counties.

The snowy owl only occasionally visits our state in the winter, generally in years when food runs low in its arctic range. Thus most of the snowy owls seen in Missouri are immature individuals forced south for lack of food. Peak numbers in Missouri occur about every four years in response to lemming population crashes in far north. Only a small portion (usually immature individuals) are forced south. Snowy owls are most active during the day. In Missouri, they prefer open grasslands. They perch on the ground, on fence posts, or on hay bales. Because these tundra dwellers are not used to the dangers of power lines, people, and cars, please don't approach them; if you're driving and see a large white bird near the road, please slow down to avoid hitting them.

In their arctic habitat, they forage in grasslands and tundra for lemmings, ptarmigan, and waterfowl. They rely especially on lemmings, and when populations of those rodents are high, snowy owl populations rise. When lemming populations crash, the owls move south in search of prey. Here, they may eat rabbits, squirrels and other rodents, mink and muskrats, and waterfowl and other birds, usually by sitting patiently on a fence post or other vantage point and looking and listening for prey.

Rare, sporadic winter visitor. Appears in Missouri during some winters and not others. This species' North American population is hard to estimate. Although their breeding territory is in the arctic tundra and faces little encroachment by people, climate change many affect them and/or the species they prey upon. Aside from habitat loss, the greatest threats to this bird are shooting and car collisions. This species occurs all around the Arctic Circle, including northern portions of North America and of Eurasia.

Life Cycle

This owl nests on the ground in open tundra in its circumpolar summer range. When they visit Missouri, snowy owls usually appear between mid-November and February, although there are records in October and April. A clutch comprises 3–11 eggs, which are incubated for about a month. After hatching, they fledge after 18–25 days.

Although snowy owls do not occur in the United Kingdom, except as accidental visitors to its far northern reaches, a snowy owl named Hedwig is prominently featured in the Harry Potter books and movies. Composer John Williams's "Hedwig's Theme" is usually considered the main theme song of all the movies. In the stories, Hedwig is a female, but she was portrayed by male owls in the movies, because they are whiter and smaller.

Owls help control populations of small mammals. Snowy owls' varying range, due to changes in prey populations, shows the interconnection between predator and prey, and how a scarcity of one can effect the fortunes of the other. When lemmings are scarce, they "control" populations of their predators!

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Similar Species
About Birds in Missouri
About 350 species of birds are likely to be seen in Missouri, though nearly 400 have been recorded within our borders. Most people know a bird when they see one — it has feathers, wings, and a bill. Birds are warm-blooded, and most species can fly. Many migrate hundreds or thousands of miles. Birds lay hard-shelled eggs (often in a nest), and the parents care for the young. Many communicate with songs and calls.