With a wingspan of up to 66 inches and a height of up to 28 inches, the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiaca) is the largest owl in North America and one of the largest owls in the world.
Originating in the Arctic tundra, snowy owls can be found across the Arctic Circle and irrupt as far as the upper half of the United States. For North Americans, snowy owls can be seen in New York and the New England states, but they prefer climates similar to their home in the Arctic tundra. So, what do snowy owls eat?
Snowy owls are efficient predators whose prey most often live in brush and short grass. To hunt, they may look for food by perching on high places or hovering above potential prey, usually eating small game like voles, lemmings, rodents, and birds.
As they irrupt, snowy owls span an area with a variety of landscapes and potential prey in their search for food. While ornithologists aren’t certain why snowy owls leave the tundra, some theories suggest their staple food of lemmings becomes hard to find. Without food, they cannot breed. This behavior forces them as far south as Oklahoma in the winter, and in such places, they may be forced to diversify their diets.
To learn more about the feeding behavior of these lemming-loving predators, keep reading!
Snowy Owl taking off in search of prey
With extra sensitive sight and hearing, snowy owls wait for prey to reveal themselves as they watch from a perch. Even in snow-covered tundra, they can hear small animals under the sheet of snow, dive down, and snatch them up with their talons. While they can supplement their diet in the tundra with rabbits, rodents, birds, and fish, they eat more than 1,600 lemmings a year, or between three and five a day.
In the wild tundra, snowy owls eat small game, mainly lemmings. They also eat voles, birds, and rodents, Arctic hares, mice, ducks, and seabirds. Snowy Owls tend to be considered opportunistic hunters, they have also been known to eat fish, amphibians, crustaceans, insects, and ptarmigan (a type of grouse).
A Snowy Owl foraging in the snow
Snowy owls begin to irrupt, or migrate south, during late November and early December. They will occasionally stay as late as April in the Northern United States before returning to the Tundra for the breeding season. In the United States, while they are wintering, they mostly hunt squirrels, rabbits, mice, ducks, and geese.
Throughout the summer, snowy owls prefer to stay in the northernmost parts of Canada, deep in the arctic tundra. In this area, there are no trees, and vegetation is limited to dwarf shrubs and sedges. There are very few species that can survive this far north, but among the mammals that can are the arctic hare, the arctic ground squirrel, chinchillas, marmots, lemmings, and pika, all of which are small rodents ripe for the snowy owl’s picking. When in their home territory, lemmings are the go-to.
Lemmings tend to make up significant parts, if not the majority, of a Snowy Owls diet
Baby snowy owls are most often born in the summer and early fall. During this time, the snowy owls are surviving mainly on lemmings in the arctic. For the first few weeks of life, as the mother sits on them to keep them warm, the father will hunt the lemmings and bring them back to his mate. The mother will then tear the meat into pieces to feed to the baby owls.
As an adaptation of their harsh environment, baby owls first leave the nest on foot at only three weeks old and toddle around the tundra until about seven weeks when they are capable of flying. At two months old, they can hunt independently for the snowy owl favorite, the lemming. Parents still assist their young until they’re around ten weeks old, and the owls may travel south to winter in southern Canada and the United States as a family unit before the young become entirely independent as an adult snowy owl.
A baby Snowy Owl chick, on the ground
Arctic foxes are very near the size of an adult snowy owl, so while fights may occur between adult foxes and snowy owls, arctic foxes primarily feed on baby snow owls while they’re still in their nests. Another predator of the snowy owl is the arctic wolf. For the most part, however, snowy owls don’t have much to fear from predators.
Snowy owl young are rarely left unprotected, but some gulls have been known to venture into snowy owl nests for an egg.
In the arctic, snowy owls eat mainly lemmings, but they can also eat small rodents, which are the most abundant small mammals in the area. They may occasionally switch to Ptarmigan and waterfowl.
Snowy Owl flying low, hunting for food
Snowy owls get most of their water and hydration from eating their prey. There is some debate about whether snowy owls eat snow in the tundra, but owls are capable of drinking if it comes down to it. Snowy owls do still bathe, so they may drink some water while they do.
Snowy owls are carnivores, as they are birds of prey. It’s a good thing, too, since vegetation is scarce in their natural home environment.
Snowy Owl flying low to the ground on the hunt for prey
Like other owl species, Snowy Owls have outstanding eyesight, but because most of their prey isn't visible, due to snow or dense plants, they instead, rely on their sense of hearing. When prey is heard or spotted whilst in low flight, or perched, snowy owls attack from above with their razor-sharp talons to strike, stun and kill their prey.
Adult arctic foxes are a bit too big to be regular prey for the snowy owl; however, snowy owls have been known to hunt and eat arctic fox kits, according to National Geographic. Arctic foxes are competitive hunters for lemmings, so there’s a bit of a rivalry between them.
Fish are not the most available food source in the arctic, but in the lower part of their territory in Canada and Alaska, they may hunt Arctic char, a relative of the salmon. Few species of fish live that far north, but other fish species in the tundra include Arctic Grayling, Lake Whitefish, Lake Trout, Brook trout, Arctic Cod, Ninespine Sticklebac, and Northern Pike.
Snowy owls also travel to coastal states while wintering in the US, so they may enjoy fish common to the Atlantic ocean and Northern Pacific as they move south. Snowy owls have been known to sit on the beach to watch for prey.
Snowy owl on the look-out on the ground
When lemmings aren’t available, snowy owls will eat arctic hares. Arctic hares are fairly large, however, growing up to 28 inches and weighing potentially twice as much as a snowy owl, so adult snowy owls primarily feed on young arctic hares.
Lemmings, a small rodent in the arctic, are the snowy owl’s primary food source. They are also the primary food source for several other predators in the arctic, so their population swings drastically in four-year cycles from prolific to next-to-extinction scarce. During periods of scarcity, snowy owls rarely produce surviving young.
Snowy owls do not eat plants. Not only are their beaks not equipped to eat and swallow plants, but they also cannot digest and use nutrients from plant material unless it is through eating mammals that eat plants themselves, which snowy owls prefer.
Snowy owl calling
Especially while wintering in southern Canada and the northern United States, snowy owls will eat ducks. Snowy owls are actually quite good at catching birds while flying, but a duck’s slow take-off makes them pretty susceptible to the talons of the fast-flying owl.
Snowy owls do not eat berries, as they are not equipped to digest anything but meat.
Other species of owls are known to eat cats, so while wintering in Canada and the US, it’s possible they will hunt one. However, cats are not a regular part of a snowy owl’s diet. This is not to say that a snowy owl wouldn’t take a cat, as they are resourceful and have diverse tastes, but cats are not a common or preferred food source.
While wintering, snowy owls will eat rats. They do prefer rodents, even in their natural habitat, and rats are plenty available in the southern range of their migratory patterns. Rats cannot survive in the tundra, so if a snowy owl were to hunt rats, it would be in southern Canada and the northern United States.
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