The elusive snowy owl is an Arctic tundra dwelling species. They spend most of their lives in the northernmost regions surrounding the North Pole, where they nest in the summer. Some populations fly south to wintering grounds throughout Canada and the northern half of the United States, but sightings are uncommon.
Snowy owls make their nests on high points, such as hills and hummocks, in their vast, open tundra habitats. Nests rarely have any vegetation that offers cover or protection. The snowy owl’s main concern is nesting in an area with ample food availability.
Such a harsh landscape probably seems like an unlikely place for a bird to thrive, but these owls do. If you would like to learn more about this fascinating species, read on! We have created this complete guide to answer the most commonly asked questions about snowy owl nesting.
Snowy Owls build their nests up high
Snowy owls build nests, but not in the same way most other birds do. These owls are ground dwellers. Their nests are formed by scraping out a shallow hole on the crest of a small hill. Nests do not contain twigs and other plant matter. Molted feathers are typically the only materials present.
Snowy owls inhabit tundra ecosystems around the North Pole, often near coastlines. They build their nests on the ground in areas that offer commanding views of their surroundings - including hilltops, ridges, hummocks, and elevated mounds. Sites often have little to no vegetation that obscures the nest. Occasionally, nests are located within rocky outcrops or on high hummocks in marshes.
The snowy owl prefers elevated areas because they collect less snow than in lower areas. Snow also melts more quickly from these exposed high points.
Snowy Owl calling
Snowy owl nests are just circular depressions in the ground, dug out by the female. Grass, moss, and lichens are occasionally observed in these nests. But generally, the owls do not add any materials. Molted feathers are often the only items found around the outer edges and inside the nest bowl.
Most snowy owls return to their Arctic breeding grounds between April and May. Some variation occurs among birds nesting in the southernmost regions of their breeding territories and those farthest north.
Snowy Owl courtship activities generally begin around mid-May in Alaska. Then, on average, eggs are laid between mid-May and early June. Dates can vary based on food resources and weather.
Snowy Owl perched on a wooden stump
Due to their far northern latitudes, snowy owls have a brief nesting season. It generally lasts between mid-May to early June. An abundance of food resources and fair weather may slightly extend the breeding season. Or, likewise, shorten it - if food is scarce and winter comes early.
The female snowy owl is the sole contributor to nest building and maintenance. She constructs her nest by digging and removing soil with her claws and bill. Once the shallow hole is dug, the female shapes her nest into a circle by pressing her body into the sides.
Construction typically takes place over a few days and may begin digging out a few nest bowls before making the final selection. Once the female chooses a nest, a pair may reuse the site for several years.
Females have also been observed digging a new nest bowl downslope from the original. This behavior is often seen when wind and weather are particularly harsh. The female will move her chicks to the more protected nest bowl until the conditions are more stable.
A snowy owl chick on the ground
Baby snowy owls generally leave the nest - taking their first flights - three weeks after hatching. Before this period, chicks may wander outside of the nest but remain nearby to be fed by their parents.
Snowy owls only have one brood per season - Arctic weather does not allow for more. A clutch typically contains between three and eleven eggs.
A snowy owl hunting low over a field
If a snowy owl pair successfully raises a brood in one nest site, they may return to it for several years. For this to occur, food sources must be plentiful.
Snowy owls are known to relocate based on food availability, even during the breeding season. Lemmings are a particularly important part of their diet. The owls appear to nest in areas where lemming populations are high.
Snowy owl eggs are white or off-white and generally elliptical. On average, eggs measure 56.4 mm in length and 44.8 mm in width.
Snowy Owl hunting for prey
Snowy owls typically lay their eggs between mid-May and early June. Dates may vary based on region, weather, and food availability. For example, an owl nesting in the northernmost reaches of its range likely has a shorter egg-laying window. The summer breeding season tends to be briefer in the high Arctic than for those laying farther south.
Snowy owls do not use nest boxes. They are exclusively ground nesters that reside in remote Arctic habitats.
A pair of Snowy Owls perched together
Like most owl species, snowy owls are nocturnal. They often spend the night hunting over the vast expanse of the Arctic tundra, then sleep during the day. Daytime roosts may include a low tree limb, rocky outcrop, hill, or high mound.
Snowy owls are highly unlikely to nest in backyards. Their breeding ranges occur in remote Arctic areas around the North Pole, generally far from human-populated regions.
However, this does not mean you will never see a snowy owl. Many owls winter farther south throughout Canada and the northern United States. Sightings are not common, but owls can be found in open tundra-like habitats, such as fields, grasslands, and dunes near coastlines.
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