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Snowy Owl
Nyctea scandica

Snowy Owls are found only in the Arctic, and are seen most commonly sitting very still on the tundra.  Snowy Owls are about the size of a Great Horned Owl but are different in that they will hunt during the day and that they have two different colors of plumage depending upon the season.  In summer, Snowy Owls are brownish with dark spots and stripes.  In winter, they are completely white.  These changes in appearance are so they can hide when they hunt, so that Snow Owls can sneak up and catch the small mice and birds that they eat.  In summer, they blend in to the tundra colors and look like shadows; in winter, they look like the snow covering the ground. 

During the spring breeding season, owls will also feed on eggs of waterfowl, including geese and swans which are very much larger than they are.  They have to be very quick to take an egg from a swan! 

Snow Owls breed on the tundra and are very good at hiding their nests and eggs.  The nest is made of dried tundra plants and the eggs look very much like the surface of the tundra.  When parents come to incubate the eggs or feed the chicks they will move slowly and carefully so that a fox or raven won't find the nest.  Snowy Owls do not fly south in the winter, but will stay wherever there is food to eat.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl
Photo © PhotoDisc

19th Century Naturalist Edward Nelson Recounts:

"From the Sitkan region north to the farthest point of the Territory the present bird keeps mainly to the more barren portions of the coast and interior, and always is found less numerous where trees are abundant.  It occurs also upon the islands of Bering Sea, and more sparingly upon the Aleutian chain, where it is rare.  It is resident at Point Barrow and also on the Seal Islands.  On Bering Island it has become abundant since the introduction of mice.  On June 12, 1877, we were on a vessel about 75 miles east of the Fur Seal Islands, when one of these birds came on board and remained most of the night in the rigging, but left early in the morning.

The Eskimo are well acquainted with these birds and with their habits; and one man told me he had seen these owls catch the large Arctic hare by planting one foot in the hare's back and stretching the other foot back and dragging its claws on the snow and ground; at the same time the bird used its wings to hold back, by reversed strokes; until the hare soon became exhausted, when it was easily killed.

It breeds upon the ground, as far south as the mouth of the Kuskoquim, especially during the years when lemmings are abundant, when this owl also becomes proportionately numerous.  The natives told me of seasons; separated by long intervals; when the lemmings have occurred in the greatest abundance, and the White Owl accompanied them in such numbers that they were seen dotting the country here and there as they perched upon the scattered knolls."

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