The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) is an instantly recognizable bird from the Strigidae family. These beautiful owls breed in the far north, from Alaska to Greenland and from Northwestern Europe to Siberia. They migrate south in the winter, irregularly crossing the border into the US.
American bird watchers in the far north can see these diurnal Owls on cold winter days, sitting on the ground or on a low perch. Have you ever wondered what female Snowy Owls look like or how they differ from males?
Female Snowy Owls are heavily barred and streaked in dark brown, creating a peppered appearance. They are also larger than adult male birds that become pure white with age. Females build the nest and incubate their eggs alone, although their partner provides all the food.
Distinguishing between adult male and female Snowy Owls is relatively easy if you can get a good look at the birds. However, juveniles of both sexes are heavily spotted and barred, which makes accurate identification more challenging.
This article covers everything you need to know about female Snowy Owls. Read along to learn more about one of the world’s most beautiful birds.
Close up of a female Snowy Owl in flight
Many behavioral differences can help you tell between male and female Snowy Owls. However, physical differences are a great place to start, and there are two major clues for distinguishing between the sexes.
Males are almost pure white, whereas female Snowy Owls are heavily barred in dark brown and appear almost black and white. Females are also much larger than males, although this is most obvious when a pair perch near each other.
Keep reading to learn more about the physical differences between male and female Snowy Owls.
Female Snowy Owl
Male Snowy Owl
The snow-white plumage and rounded heads of the Snowy Owl render them unmistakable, although females are barred heavily in dark brown. This barring makes them appear grizzled from a distance, but their white faces and yellow eyes are distinctive.
The dark barring occurs on the crown, nape, back, belly, and tail. Young males also have dark barring, although their white throat patch tends to be larger than the females’. Female Snowy Owls also have much bolder bars across their tails.
Both sexes have piercing yellow eyes. Their feet and bill are almost entirely covered in white feathers to keep warm in freezing conditions. Only the black talons and the tip of the black bill are visible.
Close up of a female Snowy Owl perched on a post
Snowy Owls usually cannot be confused with any other owl species. Leucistic (white) Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls turn up from time to time, and these birds could fool birdwatchers where their ranges overlap.
Adult Male Snowy Owls are easy to identify by their pure white plumage. However, it takes them several years to mature and lose the dark barring they have as juveniles.
Immature males can resemble females, although they tend to be smaller and have less extensive barring than adult females. Juvenile females are heavily barred everywhere except their faces and the underside of their wings.
Snowy Owl males are mostly predominately white
Female Snowy Owls are significantly larger than their male counterparts. This trait is common among Owls and other birds of prey, although its function is not fully understood.
There is considerable overlap between the measured sizes of adult female and male Snowy Owls, but the difference can help birders make an accurate identification.
Snowy Owl female in flight
Physical differences are the easiest way to distinguish between male and female Snowy Owls. However, observant birdwatchers will notice some distinct differences in their behavior.
Male Snowy Owls impress females with a fascinating display flight. The male takes off in a bouncy, moth-like flight, holding his wings up in a distinct V-shape. He often performs this display with prey in his bill, further enticing his potential partner.
The show continues when the male lands, drops the prey, and proceeds to strut around the offering. He keeps his back toward the female, who flies in if interested.
Females will defend their territory against other females in the non-breeding season, while males tend to be nomadic. During the breeding season, males are the more territorial sex, establishing and defending the breeding territory.
These birds can be fierce in defending their nest, and they are known to attack many large animals, including wolves and bears. Females are less likely to display and attack potential threats and intruders at the nest, although there are exceptions.
Female Snowy Owl perched on a post
Female Snowy Owls do hoot, although not as often as males. They may be larger than males, but they have a higher-pitched voice.
Females also make a variety of other vocalizations, including screams to solicit food and a mewing call when being fed by their partner. Males rarely produce this particular call. They are also known to produce a grunting call at the nest.
Snowy Owls are monogamous during the nesting season but select a new partner each year. Owls are known for their laziness when it comes to nest building. Most species are content to take over another bird’s nest or even lay their eggs on the bare ground. However, female Snowy Owls make a little more effort.
Female Snowy Owls dig a nest bowl by scraping away soil with their bill and claws. They rarely add nesting materials, although feathers, grass, and moss have been found in some nests.
Female Snowy Owls develop a brood patch in the nesting season. This bare patch of skin on their belly is conspicuous and can help birdwatchers tell males from females in the summer. Cold eggs can freeze and crack, even in the Arctic summer, so female Snowy Owls rarely leave the eggs in bad weather.
Once hatched, the female feeds the chicks with prey that the male delivers. She will stockpile uneaten food if her partner is a successful hunter.
Close up portrait of a Snowy owl chick
Snowy Owls are migratory, although their movements are highly irregular and irruptive. In some years, large numbers of Snowy Owls visit the Lower 48 states, sometimes turning up as far south as Texas and California.
Snowy Owls usually migrate as far as New England and the north of the Midwest. Interestingly, females tend to stay further north than males and young birds, and some individuals even remain in the far north for the winter.
Female Snowy owl resting whilst perched in a tree
Female Snowy Owls may do most of the work in preparing the nest, incubating the eggs, and feeding the chicks, but they can’t do it all alone. The female relies on her partner to bring in food and defend the nest during this time.
Female Snowy Owls appear grayish when seen from a long distance. They have dark barring on their upper wings, underparts, and crown, which creates a black-and-white impression when seen at closer range. Their eyes are bright yellow, and their bill and talons are black.
Female Snowy Owls produce a variety of vocalizations, including screams and hisses. Females also produce a loud hooting song, although they are less vocal than males.
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