Snowy owls head south to the Northland

We have had an unusual number of snowy owls in Minnesota this year. This is usually tied to a shortage in the snowy owl's food supply in their normal Arctic range.

The beautiful and majestic snowy owl is an unusual sight in Minnesota. Several injured snowies have been rescued and brought to Wildwoods, including this head-injured owl in November 2012. (Photo by Trudy Vrieze)

We have had an unusual number of snowy owls in Minnesota this year. This is usually tied to a shortage in the snowy owl's food supply in their normal Arctic range.

The snowy owl is a beautiful bird. It has been portrayed in the Harry Potter book and movies as a messenger. Harry's owl, Hedwig, has raised some interest in owls as pets. As you might expect, fictional depictions of any wild animal can mislead us into believing those wild animals are gentle, sociable and kind creatures that want to share our homes. Common sense should tell us that snowy owls and all wild animals, from native raccoons to exotic lions and tigers, are not domesticated and will not do well in any captive setting that our homes could provide.

Snowy owls are huge raptors with powerful talons. They need miles and miles of space in which to fly and hunt their prey. They eat small animals uncooked and whole, and lots of them. After consuming their prey, owls regurgitate pellets of the bone, teeth, fur and feathers that they are unable to digest.

Owls that have been rescued and found to be unreleasable to the wild, often due to wing injuries, can become education animals to teach us about their wild brothers and sisters. This requires much time and effort, special food and medical care and a consistent caretaker with which they can bond. Believe me, it's not the same as adopting a dog or cat.

These owls are 24-26 inches in length with a wingspan of 55-65 inches. While their name gives the impression that they are completely white in color, males have pale brown or black bars on their head, chest, back and wing tips. Females and juveniles have more of the same coloring. Eyes are bright yellow and the beak is black.


Snowy owls normally live in the Arctic tundra of northern Alaska, Canada and Eurasia. Breeding is in the Arctic and they move south in Canada for the winter. They occasionally irrupt and move south in winter as far as northern Minnesota in years when their preferred diet of lemmings and voles is in short supply. Here they may hunt rabbits, other small mammals and birds.

Snowy owls normally lay five to eight eggs in a clutch. In those years when food supply is good, female snowy owls lay more eggs, up to 14. Eggs are laid at two-day intervals, so owlets are of different ages in the nest.

Both male and female snowy owls will do an injured-bird imitation to lead predators away from their nest. This lures the predator to pursue them as an apparently easy target.

Snowy owls prefer isolated, open areas including grassy fields and beaches. They like light snowy surfaces. They are sometimes seen at airports because this gives them the spacious grassland they like for hunting. Snowy owls perch on the ground or a low rock or fence post where they can keep an eye out for a good meal.

Most owls hunt at night, but snowy owls also hunt during the day. Remember that during the Arctic summer season there is no real night and the opposite happens during the Arctic winter when there is no bright daylight.

Their soft feather edges, broad body and large wingspan allow snowy owls to fly almost noiselessly, an advantage when pursuing prey.

One of our key messages at Wildwoods is that wild animals don't make good pets. Leave them in the wild to hunt and live as they are intended. Let's enjoy seeing them in their natural environment. If you find an injured or apparently orphaned owl, please call Wildwoods for advice.

Owl facts


• The snowy owl has been Québec's official bird since 1987. They symbolize a national Canadian effort to improve the environment and protect wild animals.

• A group of owls is called a parliament, wisdom or study. Baby owls are called owlets.

• There are 150-220 owls species in the world, depending on how they are classified. Nineteen of those species occur in North America.

• The greatest threat to owls is habitat loss and pesticides that poison their food. Wildwoods has received owls hit by vehicles, victims of power line electrocution and probable attacks by other predators.

• Owl's feet are "zygodactyl," meaning two toes forward and two toes back, which helps make their talon grip more powerful.

• Owls have three eyelids, one to blink, one for sleep and one to protect the eye.

• It is illegal in the U.S. to remove most wild birds from the wild, including owls, without a permit.

John Jordan is a volunteer at Wildwoods. He is also an RN who lives in Duluth with the photographer Trudy Vrieze and a clowder of rescue cats.


Wildwoods is a 501(c)(3) wildlife rehabilitation organization in Duluth. The writers are volunteers at Wildwoods and/or experts in their fields. For information on how you can help wildlife, including volunteer opportunities, visit or call (218) 491-3604.

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