Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus Scientific name definitions

Denver W. Holt, Matt D. Larson, Norman Smith, Dave L. Evans, and David F. Parmelee
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020



eBird data provide detailed looks at the range of this species throughout the years: eBird Year-round Range and Point Map for Snowy Owl.

Breeding Range

Breeding latitude from about 60⁰ to 82⁰ N, most often associated with the distribution of lemmings (Dicrostonyx and Lemmus), although sometimes with that of other species of mammals and seabirds.

From n. Greenland, n. Scandinavia, n. Russia (including Wrangel I., s. Novaya Zemlya, Chukotskiy Peninsula, Anadyrland, n. Koryakland, and n. Siberia) south to the limits of tundra in Eurasia and the Commander Is.; rarely to the British Isles and Iceland (Mikkola 1983, Cramp 1985, Potapov and Sale 2012). Has nested on Fetlar I. (60⁰ 39' N; probably the most southerly breeding record) in the Shetland Islands, UK (Tulloch 1968); suspected nesting on other Shetland Islands, at least historically (Saxby 1863, 1874).

In North America in the w. Aleutians (Attu, Buldir), Hall I. (Bering Sea), and from n. Alaska (http://www.fws.gov/alaska/nwr/arctic/birdlist.htm) and throughout the Canadian Arctic Islands north to Ellesmere I., south to coastal w. Alaska (Hooper Bay), n. Yukon (primarily Herschel I.; Sinclair et al. 2003), n. Mackenzie, s. Keewatin, ne. Manitoba (Churchill; http://www.birdatlas.mb.ca/mbdata/maps.jsp?lang=en), n. Quebec and n. Labrador (Todd 1963). See also Figure 1 and AOU 1998 and supplements for specific locations.

Breeding sites are not always occupied annually owing to fluctuating food resources and this owl's nomadic habits. Perhaps the first nest ever recorded in North America, by non-native people, was located in Grinnell Land at 82⁰ 40' N, 20 June 1876 (see Bent 1938).

Wintering Range

Irregular from breeding range south to Iceland, British Isles, n. continental Europe, central Russia, n. China, and Sakhalin (Cramp 1985). Accidental in e. European countries, and in the Azores, the Mediterranean region, Iran, nw. India, and Japan.

When food is available the Snowy Owl is one of few avian species capable of withstanding Arctic winters – both in terrestrial and marine environments. Indeed, it has been recorded wintering at 82⁰ N (Hart 1880, also in Gessaman 1972, 1978, see also Manning et al. 1956 for Banks I., Canada). Thus able to winter at breeding latitudes but also found south throughout s. Canada and the n. United States; rarely south to latitudes of central California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah (Bent 1938, AOU 1998). See Figure 1 and eBird data (Dec-Feb for all years).

Two reportedly shot in Bass Cove, Bermuda in 1843 (Bent 1938, AOU 1998), and one photographed in Bermuda on 28 Nov 2013 (see Bernews 28 Nov 2013, Bermuda and Bermuda Audubon Society).

During winter, often associated with open water, e.g., known to winter on or near pack ice in the Bering Sea (Fay and Cade 1959, Irving et al. 1970, McRoy et al. 1971). Recent satellite tracking data indicate the ability to winter on pack-ice, probably near leads, cracks in ice, and polynyas (Fuller at al. 2003, Therrien et al. 2011). Although it is tempting to infer satellite data as new information, Eskimos hunters have known about these behaviors for centuries. Most irruptions occur more regionally as in winter 2013/2014 from Great Lakes to New England.

During the winter irruption of 2011/2012, irruption migration was widespread, with Snowy Owls recorded in large numbers from Atlantic to Pacific coasts, including 35 states within the continental USA and all southern Canadian provinces, with individuals recorded as far south as Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and S. Carolina (see eBird 2012, Dec- Feb map). In November 2011, one Snowy Owl arrived at the Honolulu International Airport, Hawaii. It seems highly unlikely this individual flew the entire distance without stopping; as the species is known to board ships at sea, it seems logical to conclude it used ships as a stopover during this journey; see numerous stories on the internet – Snowy Owl/ Hawaii). This represents the most southernmost record for the species.

Distribution of the Snowy Owl - Range Map
  • Year-round
  • Migration
  • Breeding
  • Non-Breeding
Distribution of the Snowy Owl

Recommended Citation

Holt, D. W., M. D. Larson, N. Smith, D. L. Evans, and D. F. Parmelee (2020). Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.snoowl1.01