Snowy Owls: Bird Expert Kenn Kaufman Answers 12 Questions

Find out if the birds are born white, why their vocalizations are different from other owls', and more.

The bird world is aflutter with news of snowy owls invading the Lower 48 and beyond. Here, Kenn Kaufman answers questions about the majestic birds posed by Facebook fans of Audubon and PBS Nature. Hungry for more on snowies? Check out PBS Nature’s full film, Magic of the Snowy Owl, available for streaming here.

How many snowy owls are there?

Snowy owls nest all across the Arctic tundra of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, and Russia. One careful estimate put their total world population at about 300,000. However, their numbers undoubtedly vary from year to year, rising and falling with changes in food supply and other factors, and they probably have declined overall in the last century.

Why do snowy owls stay in such wide open areas, and not among trees? Do they stay in open areas at night as well?

They're native to Arctic tundra, north of treeline, so for most of the year they wouldn't even see a tree. When some of them come farther south, they seek out areas that look similar to their Arctic territory: prairies, wide-open fields, beaches, lake edges. And yes, they stay in open areas at all times of day and night.

Are snowy owls born white?

Within a few hours after hatching, the young nestlings are covered with fluffy white down, but that is replaced by darker gray down within a few days. Their first set of feathers, which takes a while to grow in, is basically white, but with a variable amount of black spotting and barring.

How many eggs does an owl usually lay?

It varies among other species of owls. But that's one of the most fascinating things about Snowy Owls: the number of eggs that the females lay will change from year to year, depending on how much food is available. When food is scarce, they may lay only three to five eggs (or sometimes none at all). When food is abundant, as in a year when lemmings are in peak numbers, they may lay seven to eleven eggs, or even more. This is part of the reason why their numbers can increase so rapidly in a good season.

Why do snowy owls hunt for prey during daylight hours when other owls are almost strictly nocturnal?

Since most of their breeding range is above the Arctic Circle, they are in a regime of continuous daylight in summer, so they have to be able to hunt when it's light. During the winter, they may hunt either by day or by night, depending on local conditions and the type of prey that they're after. Often these wintering Snowy Owls will sit in one spot for most of the day, starting to become active near dusk, and doing much of their hunting at dusk or just after dark.

Why do snowy owls' vocalizations sound so different from those of other owls?

Most owls live in forest and are active at night, so communicating by voice is a very important part of their behavior. Since snowy owls live in open country, and they're active in daylight during the breeding season, they have less need for far-carrying sounds. Still, they do make hoarse hooting sounds as part of their territorial defense. They also make a variety of other sounds during interactions with their own kind, including shrieks, cackling barks, mewing cries, and snapping their bills shut loudly. Lone snowy owls on the wintering grounds are often silent.

What are some theories that explain the difference in the distribution of the November sightings this year (including Bermuda & Newfoundland) versus 2011?

This season's invasion so far has been concentrated farther east than the last one, along the Atlantic Coast and the eastern Great Lakes, with smaller numbers farther west. We don't have a complete answer for why this is happening. But we do know that lemmings (the owls' favorite prey in summer) were abundant in northern Quebec last summer, and the owls apparently had very good breeding success there. Elsewhere in the Arctic, including farther west, it wasn't such a productive season. So northern Quebec could be the source for much of this season's flight. From that region, if the birds headed south, they would wind up concentrated exactly where they are being seen this year.

We have had six or seven confirmed snowy owls in North Carolina this season. The last time one was here was in 2001. What are the reasons for these birds coming so far? Are these all young birds, or possibly birds that are returning from previous years coming more south than normal, expanding range? Also, is it true that this far out of historical range, many succumb to aspergillosis?

We don't know why the birds have come so far south. The most logical explanation is that in any big flight year, a few will go farther than the rest. Since the numbers involved in this season's flight are so large, several have gone farther south and have been detected. The great majority of the owls seen at southern latitudes this season have looked like young birds, heavily marked with black. And yes, snowy owls are known to be susceptible to aspergillosis. The spores that cause the infection are found worldwide, but the owls' immune systems apparently protect them from infection until they become highly stressed—and that may be more likely to happen with hungry young birds in unfamiliar surroundings.

How can we get people to leave the snowy owls alone?

Snowy owls are protected by law, and most people don't mean them any harm, but may unintentionally cause them more stress by repeatedly trying to approach them for closer looks or photos. In most cases, we've found that we can convince people to give the owls some space just by explaining their situation.

There was a case last week in which officials at Kennedy Airport in New York had started to shoot snowy owls that were perching close to the runways and posing a hazard to planes. After quick action by Audubon and other groups to mobilize public opinion, airport officials changed their plans and decided to use non-lethal methods to keep the owls away from the runways.

Where can you take a wounded snowy owl for rehab?

In many communities there are licensed wildlife rehabilitators who have the necessary training and permits to care for these birds. Check with your local Audubon chapter or with your state wildlife agency for the name of the nearest wildlife rehab facility.

Can you keep snowy owls as pets?

No—it's against U.S. laws for individuals to keep native owls as pets. And regardless of how cool they looked in the Harry Potter films, snowy owls probably wouldn't make great pets, even if it were legal to keep them. They are big, powerful birds, capable of doing serious damage with their hooked bills and sharp talons, and not likely ever to become affectionate with humans. Feeding such a large owl, and cleaning up after it, would be major chores.

Will snowy owls be able to adapt to the conditions predicted for the next century due to climate change? Will it impact their food sources or nesting habits?

Many of us are wondering about the answers to those questions! It's hard to say. Even in a warming climate, much of the Arctic is likely to remain open, treeless tundra, so the owls won't run out of breeding habitat. Their prey, including lemmings and other mammals and birds, probably will not disappear completely. One point of concern involves their wintering habitat. Studies within the last decade have shown that many snowy owls spend the winter far out on the sea ice in the Arctic, evidently hunting seabirds at open leads in the ice. With the continuing reduction in the amount of sea ice in the Arctic, the owls may be more likely to simply head south in fall, winding up in areas where they are not so well adapted. So even if they have good breeding seasons, fewer of the birds may survive through the winters. This is just speculation so far. We need to monitor the movements and numbers of these magnificent birds to have a chance of helping ensure the survival of the species.