Snowy owl in flight. Photo by Scott Carpenter
Learn about snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus), striking and mysterious interlopers from the Arctic.

Published: December 11, 2018

Nature has a knack for defying convention. Stunning contrasts, fascinating juxtapositions, and curious exceptions to every rule have resulted from 3.8 billion years of evolution. Take for instance the sight of a pearl-white snowy owl perched on the sandy dunes of the Oregon coast. Every few years the raptors make their way to the Pacific Northwest, captivating seasoned photographers and beachcombers alike.

Identification

Snowy owls owe their name to their white plumage (with varying amounts of black markings), which offers camouflage against the snow-covered terrain of their breeding grounds in the North American high tundra. They sport a rounded head and striking yellow eyes and are the largest owl by weight in North America.

Life

Snowy owls feed primarily on lemmings, small rodents in the northern tundra, but also eat other rodents and birds. They are irruptive migrators, meaning they travel farther distances some years than others. During winters when lemmings are scarce, they range south to the shorelines and fields of the continental United States, including the dunes of Fort Stevens State Park at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Status

A combination of remote nesting sites, massive territories, and irregular migration patterns make data collection for snowy owls extremely difficult. They are listed on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds Watch List, which identifies species at risk for extinction without conservation action. As with many arctic birds, climate change could push the snowy owl’s winter range farther north.

Learn more and view climate change models of potential migration shifts. Also, learn about Columbia Land Trust’s work to conserve wetlands, estuaries, and shorelines of the Coast Range & Estuaries,  habitat upon which snowy owls and hundreds of other birds species depend.