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



Arctic tundra habitat throughout its circumpolar range. Will use any habitat where prey are available, including marshes, rivers, and lakes. These include desert Arctic tundra, wet tundra, coastal tundra, and Arctic islands. Less common in low shrub-like inland tundra and slopes nearing tree line. In winter coastal fields and dunes, open moorlands and grasslands, marshes, agricultural fields; also winters on sea-ice at Arctic latitudes (Therrien et al. 2011).

Habitat in Breeding Range

Breeds on open Arctic tundra from near tree-line to edge of polar seas , with hummocks, rocks or other low prominences (König and Weick 2008) for nest sites, roosting, and hunting posts, and sparse low vegetation and dwarf shrubs and lichen; lowland salt meadows and poorly drained freshwater meadows; in general, breeds in areas with plentiful supply of Arctic or sub-Arctic rodents, usually at elevations below 300 m, except in Norway (where lemmings occur only on mountains at 1000 m or higher). In many areas, nests along coastlines or not far away (see Cramp 1985, Parmelee 1992, Holt et al. 1999). See also Breeding: nest site.

Habitat in Nonbreeding Range

From snow-covered tundra and open water within the ice pack, south to rangelands, farmlands, coast lines, marshes, islands, large forest clearings, and cities and towns bordered by open habitats (Kerlinger et al. 1985, Parmelee 1992, Fuller et al. 2003, Detienne et al. 2008, Therrien et al. 2011a).

South of tundra, winter habitat resembles open flat areas reminiscent of tundra. On the plains of Alberta, observations of wintering Snowy Owls indicated they spent 44% of time in stubble-fields, 30% in summer-fallow, 14% in hayfield, and the rest in pasture, grassland, and sloughs (Lein and Boxall 1979). In a similar study from the same area, Lein and Weber (1979) recognized five habitat types (residential, summer-fallow, stubble-field, hayfield, pasture and slough). The owls were recorded more often than expected on stubble and hayfields, than the other habitats. Stubble-fields were clearly the most frequently used habitat (Lein and Weber 1979). The authors felt these habitats maintained most of the prey species the owls hunted.

Although technically not a marine bird, the Snowy Owl is known to winter in coastal areas south of its breeding range, and also in areas of open seawater within the Arctic. Eskimo marine mammal hunters have long known that Snowy Owls hunt along leads or other open areas of water during winter and early spring. Observers on ships reported Snowy Owls wintering at sea in the Arctic (Fay and Cade 1959, Irving et al. 1970, McRoy et al. 1971). Sea ducks and alcids are usually present in such open water leads, and are hunted by the owls (McRoy et al. 1971, Gilchrist and Robertson 2000, Robertson and Gilchrist 2003). Satellite tracking data (Fuller at al. 2003, Therrien et al. 2011a) buttress the above observations, showing that Snowy Owls often winter on sea ice near open water, and in darkness.

During migration, appears to prefer open habitats, such as coastlines and prairies. However, some individuals must fly over forests and mountains to reach tundra habitats for spring nesting, and open habitats for wintering. No specific habitat described for migration, but coastlines and prairies are probably important. Know to fly from mainland North America and Europe to distant arctic islands and back.

Snowy Owl Figure 3. Frequency of Snowy Owl occurrence, Christmas Bird Counts 1960-1981.
Figure 3. Frequency of Snowy Owl occurrence, Christmas Bird Counts 1960-1981.

Frequency = the proportion of counts reporting owls.

Snowy Owl Snowy Owl breeding habitat, Bathurst Island, Nunavut, June.
Snowy Owl breeding habitat, Bathurst Island, Nunavut, June.

Snowy Owls favor wide-open expanses of tundra for breeding. During winter they are found in more varied habitats, but perhaps unsurprisingly they still favor open areas frequenting farmlands, beaches, and airports. They generally shun high elevation montane areas., Jun 20, 2008; photographer Gerrit Vyn

Snowy Owl Snowy Owl nest and eggs, Barrow, AK, June.
Snowy Owl nest and eggs, Barrow, AK, June.

Snowy Owls nest on the ground in barren arctic tundra. , Jun 05, 2006; photographer Gerrit Vyn

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