Snowy Owls, with their striking white feathers and piercing yellow eyes, are one of the most recognizable birds in the world. These magnificent creatures are known for their ability to adapt to extreme cold environments, but what about their diet? What do these Arctic hunters feast on to sustain themselves in the harsh tundra? In this article, we’ll delve into the dietary habits of Snowy Owls and explore what these incredible birds eat to survive and thrive in their frigid habitat.
Let’s find out what Snowy Owls eat
Belonging to the Arctic regions of North America, Snowy Owls are the only owl species with mainly white feathers. Their feathers help them blend into their snow-covered surroundings while hunting for prey. Like other owl species, they’re also raptors and are highly proficient at hunting, even in the extreme climatic conditions they live in.
Snowy owls are carnivorous birds, just like the other members of the Owl family.
A common myth about these birds is that they’re omnivorous and eat both plants and meat. This theory doesn’t make sense for many reasons, one of which is that there’s little to no vegetation in the Arctic region.
Most of a Snowy Owl’s diet is made up of lemmings; these small rodents found in or near Arctic regions are their favorite meal. When lemmings are scarce, they feed on other small mammals like rats, voles, muskrats, rabbits, hares, raccoons, ground squirrels, moles, and prairie dogs.
They will eat 3-5 lemmings a day if they can find them. According to experts, a fully-grown Snowy Owl eats an average of 1,600 lemmings in a year.
Did you know that Snowy Owls are also cannibalistic? It’s true! These birds are known to eat Short-Eared Owls with relish. Birds like ducks, murrelets, grouse, geese, gulls, Ring-Necked Pheasants, and American Coots are also on the Snowy Owls’ menu.
The migration patterns of Snowy Owls are also largely dependent on the availability of food. If they cannot find enough food in their usual hunting grounds, they’ll migrate further south.
The hunting strategies of Snowy Owls
Snowy Owls are patient and strong hunters. Unlike most owl species, Snowy Owls are diurnal hunters to an extreme level. They’ll hunt at all hours during the continuous daylight of Arctic summers.
Due to the lack of vegetation in their habitat, they spend most of their days perched on posts or rocks, waiting for their prey to make an appearance.
When they see a lemming or a hare scurrying around, they swoop down and pick it up with their strong legs. They can also wait for a long time next to ice holes in ponds and rivers until a fish swims to the top. When that happens, they scoop it up from the water’s surface. Then, they take it to a safe and solitary spot to enjoy their meal in peace.
When the prey is not too big, they often swallow it whole! After 12-18 hours, all the indigestible components, like the feathers and bones, are regurgitated in the form of small pellets, which they spit out.
The threat to Snowy Owls
Because owls are both strong defenders and capable hunters, most species of this family have an abundant and widespread population. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Snowy Owls. The population of this particular species has been on the decline since the 1960s and has been declared vulnerable by the IUCN in 2018.
But why does this raptor species suffer so? Let’s find out!
Snowy Owls are a predator species, which means that adults are fully capable of defending themselves and are not threatened by any other bird. The list of their predators includes only three names: wolves, foxes, and humans. And even these three come across such an opportunity rarely.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for baby Snowy Owls. Snowy Owl nests with fledglings are a quick and easy snack for large birds like hawks, eagles, and even gulls.
Another major threat to these birds is human activity. Vehicular accidents, tower collisions, airplane bird strikes, and animal traps are all major causes behind Snowy Owls’ deaths. Pesticides and insecticides are also an indirect threat to these owls because the rodents they eat have often ingested those chemicals.
And as if that wasn’t enough, humans also hunt these birds for coats, shoes, and other luxury items.
In the end, global climate change is currently the primary threat to the Snowy Owl population. Due to the increase in temperature, reducing snow and an increase in rainfall will most likely affect the lemming population and, therefore, Snowy Owls.