The beautiful Snowy owl is a favorite amongst bird enthusiasts and the general public alike. This large, true owl, is adorned in bright white and light brown plumage and is one of the largest owls in the world. Snowy owls are distributed across much of the Arctic, sub-Arctic, and Tundra in Europe, Asia, and North America. Here, we’ll be answering; how long do Snowy owls live?
Snowy owls live for around 10 years in the wild, but many banded individuals have lived for 20 years or longer. These large owls are vulnerable to food shortages in their cold, isolated territories, but survival rates for average birds are often very high. For example, a study of 12 female owls on Bylot Island found year-on-year survival rates of around 85 to 92%.
Snowy owls are tremendously resilient - they have to be to survive in their cold habitats. Some Snowy owls migrate south during the ultra-cold Arctic winter, but others remain in their breeding range all year. As a result of their sporadic migratory habits, Snowy owls have popped up in some strange places, including Norfolk in the UK.
Many are perhaps already endeared to Snowy owls thanks to Hedwig, Harry Potter’s pet Snowy owl! However, there’s plenty more to learn about these beautiful and elegant owls!
In the wild, the average lifespan for a Snowy owl is around 10 years
Longevity data on Snowy owls are lacking. However, a handful of studies estimate that these owls live for around 10 years in the wild. With that said, many banded Snowy owls have reached the age of 20 or more.
Snowy owls live for around ten years in the wild, but many individuals have been recorded living longer. For example, a female captured in Alberta, Canada, in 2013 was more than 20-years-old, and a female banded in Massachusetts was at least 23 years and ten months old.
Snowy owl longevity is sensitive to regional conditions, especially in winter. In good years with an abundance of voles and other prey, adult survival rates are almost 100%. Nesting success is also generally high, around 90% in one European study. Around 40 to 80% of birds survive until fledging.
Snowy Owl in flight, hunting for prey
There are numerous anecdotes of Snowy owls living for around 20 to 30 years in captivity. One captive Snowy owl captured in Switzerland lived until around 28. Another at the Owl Rehabilitation Foundation, Vineland, Ontario, lived for around 30 years, producing many eggs until it died from West Nile Virus.
Many Snowy owls die as nestlings or juveniles. Around 40 to 80% of birds survive the nest through until they fledge, and not all of those will survive through until adulthood. Parasites, disease, starvation, and predation threaten young birds. Black fly parasitism is a particular issue in Scandinavia.
Of birds that survive until adulthood, many die from a range of unnatural causes. On the Great Plains, around 81% of 71 Snowy owls were found killed by various traumas, including shooting and collisions. 14% died from starvation.
In British Columbia, shootings accounted for around 25% of all deaths. Of 438 banded birds found by the USGS banding lab, 150 (34.2%) were found dead from unknown causes, and 52 (11.9%) were shot. The remainder died from a mixture of collisions, disease, starvation, and miscellaneous causes.
Occasionally, drops in lemmings and voles cause greater rates of starvation. However, starvation accounts for quite a small number of Snowy owl deaths, around 10 to 20%.
Juvenile Snowy Owl - A large proportion of Snowy owls die in the nest or as juveniles
Snowy owls have relatively slow lifecycles. The female incubates the eggs for around 32 to 36 days, and fledging takes around 35 to 50 days after the eggs hatch.
It takes another couple of weeks for the owlets to be able to fly well. After fledging, the young stay with their parents for another 2 to 3.5 months before becoming independent and establishing their own territories. Snowy owls reach sexual maturity after around 1.5 to 2.5 years.
Snowy owls face virtually no natural predators during adulthood. However, nests are occasionally raided by wolves and foxes.
Since Snowy owls live in the Arctic and tundra, large birds and mammals are few and far between. There have also been isolated cases of gulls attacking Snowy owl nests near the coastline.
Snowy owl in flight
There are a few cases of captive Snowy owls living into their late-20s. For example, one captive Snowy owl in Switzerland lived until around 28, but the oldest might be a Snowy owl raised from a chick at the Owl Rehabilitation Foundation, Vineland, Ontario, which lived for around 30 years.
The owl produced many fertile eggs until it died from West Nile Virus.
Snowy owls typically hunt and feed every day. When there’s a surplus of food, they cache the excess in their nests.
Caches of 10 to 40 items of prey are pretty common, especially when lemmings are particularly abundant. Snowy owls have been observed voluntarily fasting for 1 to 2 days, but they usually eat every day.
A Snowy owl on the ground during the early morning light
Snowy owls are exceptionally well-adapted for the cold, with layers of thick, downy feathers, feathered legs, toes, and compact, flat heads.
Their legs and toes are also covered in feathers, and their feet have large, insulated footpads. In high winds, Snowy owls take shelter behind trees or anywhere else they can find.
According to the IUCN, Snowy owls are Vulnerable. Their populations are dwindling, and there are only an estimated 257,000 left in the wild.
Researchers are unsure whether Snowy owl populations are fluctuating naturally, or whether the warming of their Arctic habitats is altering their food supply and other behaviors.
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