Reader photo: Snowy owl

December 12, 2011 • 3:28 pm

Reader Tom C. sent me this photo of a Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus), taken on Wolfe Island, Ontario (just north of Kingston) on December 7. This is either a female or a young bird, as adult males lack scalloping on the feathers.

It’s gorgeous, no? I’ve seen exactly one of these in my life: on Plum Island in Massachusetts, when I was in graduate school.

If you have a good wildlife photo, send it along. I can’t promise to use it, but if it’s good I’ll consider it.

Here’s a National Geographic video of a male snowy owl hunting for lemmings (around the clock) for his brood.  The web pages I’ve read suggest that only the male hunts while the female stays on the nest. Oh, and they mate for life.

39 thoughts on “Reader photo: Snowy owl

  1. they mate for life

    I will bet money that nobody has ever followed even a single snowy owl for its entire reproductive life.
    I’ll grant “long-term pair bond”.

    I saw one once. It sat on top of a building on the south edge of Michigan State University’s campus for a couple days back in like 1979. Gorgeous animal.

    1. Per Birds of North America:

      Mate fidelity is poorly understood. Owing to between-season fluctuations in breeding, long-term banding operations on traditional nesting grounds are highly desirable. This species is generally thought to have a weak pair bond, in contrast to many owls (Johnsgard 1988). There is no indication that a male and a female form a pair for more than one season (Voous 1989). Nomadism almost certainly would preclude mate fidelity (P. Kerlinger pers. comm.). Exceptions may occur under unusual circumstances, as at Fetlar, Shetland Islands, where the species breeds rarely and males are disproportionately fewer than females. According to Robinson and Becker (1986), the same pair of owls (based on plumage details) nested there from 1967 to 1974; in 1973 and 1974 the male was bigamous.

  2. There used to be a snowy owl that perched on a parking garage opposite where I worked in downtown Seattle back in the ’90s. We were, of course, quite surprised. I suppose the garage had a good supply of mice.

  3. When I was a kid we had a batch of Audubon prints that rotated in the same frame. The Snowy Owl was my favorite. It’s downstairs now and doesn’t share time with the others.

  4. Great picture!

    Snowy Owls are irrupting well south of their traditional wintering grounds this year. So far, we’ve had something like 50 reports in Michigan, which is incredibly high.

    Here is a map of birds reported across the country so far:

    Note that Hawaii even has a record from this year (a first state record)! Unfortunately, the bird was shot days after its discovery…

  5. I sent this Snowy Owl image to Jerry Coyne this afternoon… with scant info attached (sorry). There are two islands with roads and wintering raptors off Kingston Ontario: Wolfe and Amherst, both have ferry service. So, an adventure.

    I did not offer any age or sex for this bird as Snowy Owls, like many other large raptors can be tricky (there is plenty of old & wrong information out there). Young snowies, either male or female, plus adult females will present with varying amounts of dark markings over the white background… with ‘varying’ being the operative word. Such that, two birds of exactly the same age and sex can look different. Since this is a large bird, it takes several years for the final form to emerge via feather molt.

    And the Snowy Owl in this photo is tricky, as one could make the case it is a young male. Again, I offered no additional notes when I sent the image. For the fledgling ornithologists in the group here’s a link to some Snowy Owls with notes on sexing this species (these are museum specimens, but you can always parrot the Monty Python line, “He’s just napping”) (or tell yourself they’ve just eaten and, boy do they look stuffed).

    For early this Winter of 2011-12, there have been a few articles on the southward Snowy Owl movement. Here are a couple, utilize eBird reporting, making the map a “live” object!

    Happy Owlidays,
    Tom Carrolan

    1. Well, it’s a lovely shot, Tom: just the way I used to see Snowies in eastern Colorado. Thanks for thememories, and the owliday wishes!

    2. Thanks for sending in this pic, and for all the extra info you added. I’m going to be keeping my eyes peeled here in MI.

  6. I think one was just reported from Staten Island NY this last month – no idea if that was unusual. I was in NY but couldn’t seem to find time to make a visit to the island, which I really regret now.

  7. The one I saw was at Ottawa airport, sitting on a fence post out in the field. A comm tech at the tower pointed it out to me. He said one came most every year and stayed for months each winter.

  8. I saw a few over the years when I was growing up in the Ottawa area. One thing that makes Snowies great is that they’re fairly active during the day so there’s a good chance of seeing one if it’s around.

      1. The Canon SX40 HS is a 35x optical zoom lens with digital zoom features up to 140x. I was reasonably close but not so close as to scare the birds away. Unfortunately some of the scores of photographers get so close to the birds, to the point that they have to fly away. There is a fair amount of concern about this issue (scaring the birds) in the local paper. I was with an old timer who new how close we could get without causing them undue stress.

          1. The guy with the camera was not close to the 3 snowies. That was just an illusion due to thh distance and angle it was shot. .

            Cameras like priests do lie. 🙂

            1. Well I did suspect a certain amount of tele-foreshortening there; still amazing tho. Esp. as it seems as if there would have been photogs on both sides of the owls. I’m just surprised all that didn’t set off their flight response…

              Very cool!

    1. That’s an amazing opportunity for photographers, but it must be very hard on the owls. Here on the prairie in Saskatchewan, I have never seen a Snowy Owl tolerate that kind of proximity to a person, unless maybe the photographer were in a car or a blind.

      I also am now shooting with a Canon SX40 HS. I just posted some photos on Posterous of a Snowy Owl captured from a great distance.

      1. Nice blog post, and thanks very much for the camera recommendation. I’ve been leaning toward getting a p-&-s with high optical zoom; this Canon looks very promising.

  9. I once saw one that was hanging out on St George Island on the Florida Gulf coast. It was quite an anomaly but the camouflage worked well among the snow white sand dunes.

  10. In mid-winter a while back we went outside of our home in Milwaukee and saw a large white owl sitting on a rooftop. We were told it was a snowy owl that had ventured south as a result of the severe winter that was occuring up north. It was was cutting into their rodent diet. Is that correct?
    They would have no problem living on Milwaukee gutter rat.

    1. An interesting note from the second article Tom C. linked to above:

      Conventional wisdom holds that Snowy Owls, particularly the young birds, move south when lemming populations crash. Food supply does motiviate birds (as it does people). But some new field work, ably reported by my pal and colleague Kent McFarland, suggests that Snowy Owls can show up in the US when food supplies to the north are actually abundant. Lots of food may mean that lots of owls, particularly young owls, survive until winter, at which point the adults chase them from arctic feeding areas to fend for themselves. Those young birds often land in northern states.

  11. MAUCH,

    Snowy Owls and many other raptors are highly dependent upon voles as a primary food source. As such, in years when vole populations crash, many raptors of the high arctic venture south into the lower 48 in search of food.

    However, this year vole numbers were VERY high and, as a result, many raptors (including snowies) had a very successful breeding season. Given the abundance of raptors fledged this year, many are moving further south in search of food (perhaps due to high levels of competition on the breeding grounds). A bit of research reveals that many of the birds reported in the lower 48 this year are first year birds, which is expected under these conditions.

  12. Here is a photo and video of the Snowy Owl that I got to see this January near Rockford, IL. It was such a thrill to get a chance to see it and get such a close up shot through my open sunroof!

    Jerry, there actually were a couple different sightings of SNOW in Chicago proper this year, most notably at Montrose Point. Looking on, someone posted a most recent sighting at Montrose on Dec 6th.

  13. There were also Snowy Owls on the third episode of Frozen Planet (Summer).

    The male brings lemmings that the female tears into chunks for the owlets. They say an owlet can eat two lemmings a day.

    They also say that over the summer the male will provide over a 1000 lemmings.

    Latter on we see the female owl protecting her now older owlets from a skua by jumping in the air, talons up, to keep it away from her youngs. It is quite impressive and very aesthetic.

    We see one of the owlets swallow a lemming whole.

    If you have a Blu-Ray player that can convert UK 50i for your TV you can buy it on

    They give the warning:
    “Please note that this product will not play on US spec 60i Blu-ray players as the Blu-ray discs are authored to UK 50i specs.”

  14. In winter, the invertebrate aquarist for whom I volunteered at the Shedd Aquarium would take lunch on the lakefront in winter. She said you could see Snowy Owls there if you were lucky. You should check it out sometime, Jerry.

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