Snowy Owls: Bird Species Profile

Temperament, Diet, and Care Tips

Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus).
Gallo Images/Frank de Luyck/Photodisc/Getty Images

Some blame it on the fictional Harry Potter and his snowy owl sidekick, Hedwig, for giving a false impression that owl care is easy, and owning one as a pet is acceptable. And while it can be quite common and enjoyable to have a pet parrot or another domestic bird, the same is not true for this wild bird of prey. Other than zoos and wild bird sanctuaries, it is downright illegal to own a snowy owl in North America. However, owl ownership is allowed in other parts of the world.

Species Overview

Common Name: Snowy owl, Arctic owl

Scientific Names: Bubo scandiacus

Adult Size: This large bird of prey has a wingspan of 20 to 27 inches, weighing about 4 1/2 pounds

Life Expectancy: In the wild, about 9 years; in captivity, up to 28 years

Origin and History

The beautiful white snowy owl is native to the Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia north of 60 degrees latitude. And while Arctic conditions are preferred, this nomadic creature has been known to migrate south, following its prey and breeding at more southerly latitudes.

Once one of the most persecuted owls in North America due to sport and trophy status, this species remains listed as "vulnerable." There are less than 30,000 birds remaining worldwide.

Temperament

Snowy owls are typically solitary and aren't known to be affectionate toward each other or humans. Since they're most active at night and rely on sizable live prey as their main diet, they don't make a good pet.

This bird uses its large talons and sharp beak to catch prey. And it employs its unique owl features—night vision, keen hearing, and aerodynamic body—to become a silent but deadly predator. Since it is also prey to other larger animals, when threatened, both male and female owls defend themselves and their nests by dive-bombing and attacking perceived threats.

If you raise a cute young chick from birth, it imprints on the person feeding it. This imprinting makes the bird think it is human. Once sexual maturity and its instincts kick in, the pet owl begins to view its owner as either a mate or a threat.

Speech and Vocalizations

Owls don't talk, so you can't liken them to talking parrots. Owls also cannot be left alone for long periods. Otherwise, they will screech insistently, demanding your attention.

Snowy owls also hoot, bark, grunt, scream, whistle, and twitter, among other vocalizations. If you hear snowy owls hooting, it is usually a defensive call marking their territory. They may also clap their beak in response to threats. While called clapping, this sound is the clicking of the tongue and not the beak.

Snowy Owl Colors and Markings

This owl, one of the largest species in North American, can be recognized by its distinct color and markings. Adult males are almost pure white with random black flecks on the tips of their wings. Females and young birds—while still predominantly white—have dark markings scattered throughout their bodies and wear a crown of black marks on the feathers on their heads. All of these birds have striking yellow eyes and a starkly contrasting black beak.

Caring for a Snowy Owl

Care for a snowy owl is a full-time job. Snowy owls, especially those that are human-imprinted, need round the clock care, regular veterinary checkups, and daily exercise.

An owl enclosure needs to be a minimum of 20-square-feet with a specially designed perch, complete with a leash.

Owls, like most birds, go through an annual molt, requiring you to be on top of cage cleaning. During this time, they will dump large quantities of feathers, defecate profusely, and expel several owl pellets—regurgitated clumps of undigestible bits from prey items, such as fur, bones, and teeth.

Any excrement, discarded feathers, or rotting refuse left in the enclosure is an excellent breeding ground for bacteria, which can then affect the health of your pet owl. Round-the-clock maintenance of the enclosure is needed.

Common Health Problems

Snowy owls are prone to aspergillosis, a fungal infection that causes respiratory problems, depression, or loss of appetite. Birds of prey originating from arctic or subarctic climates tend to be more susceptible. The fungus appears in a warmer, drier environment.

Diet and Nutrition

Similar to its close relative, the great horned owl, the snowy owl eats small mammals, other small birds, and insects in the wild. Its preferred food is lemmings. On average, it will consume three to five lemmings per day.

In captivity, owls are fed whole, live (or frozen and thawed) mice, rats, and chicks. It needs at least seven to 12 per day. This type of prey-based diet (and the fact that you may have to hunt and gut this prey yourself) can be a logistical nightmare for bird owners. 

Exercise

Snowy owls in captivity need to be "flown" every day, requiring the owner and pet to practice falconry techniques together, such as training an owl to fly and then return to an arm perch. Similar to sport-hunting falcons, an owl needs to wear a specialized hood to keep it calm during the training period. After training is complete, owners must become licensed by passing a series of tests and acquiring specific equipment. This flying technique, however, is only pertinent for those who have a special permit to own one.

Pros
  • Beautiful, exotic bird

  • Many organizations offer adoption programs for this species

Cons
  • Illegal to own in North America

  • Requires expert care

Where to Adopt or Buy a Snowy Owl

Since the birds are not legal to purchase in the U.S. You can sponsor or "adopt" an owl that lives its life in a pet sanctuary or an animal center. Many shelters or conservation organizations help heal injured wild birds or care for wild owls that were initially pets. These organizations include the:

Adoption programs ensure that these birds are cared for by professionals, given the appropriate enclosure, attention, training, and care. Your monetary contribution can provide for that owl's needs, and in the case of local bird sanctuaries, may grant you the ability to visit the bird. Depending on the sanctuary, they may even allow more interactive engagement, such as helping with feeding or taking part in owl care. Sponsoring an owl helps that wild animal and provides much-needed support to the center or organization that provides for its care.

More Pet Bird Species and Further Research

If you are interested in other exotic bird species, check out:

Otherwise, check out all of our other large bird species profiles.