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The Owls of North Dakota

Snowy Owl
Nyctea scandiaca

JPG -- Picture of Species

The snowy owl is the heaviest and most powerful of all North American owls. It is 20-27 inches long, has an average wingspread of 5 feet, and weighs around 4 pounds. It has no ear tufts and is white with dark barring. The barring is heaviest on young birds, lighter on females, and may be nonexistent on older males.

The range of the snowy owl is circumpolar, being located throughout the Arctic regions of the Old and New World. While an owl of the open tundra, snowies winter south, from the Arctic coast to the southern Canadian provinces and North Dakota. It has also been documented irregularly as far south as California and Texas.

The snowy owl nests on the ground north of the treeline, usually on the summit of a hillock or other rise of land. Its nest is a mere hollow scooped out of the earth and lined with a little moss and a few feathers. The male will actively defend his mate, nest and young against enemies, even wolves and Arctic fox, by swooping low and striking at intruders.

The snowy owl is active day and night and is a particular predator on mice and lemmings on their breeding grounds. In fact, it may not attempt to nest in years when lemmings are scarce. However, snowies will also eat ptarmigans, gulls, and waterfowl, and have been known to wade in and catch fish and small marine animals. In bad winters, snowies will eat whatever they can find, including rabbits, ground squirrels, rats, grouse, and even carrion and fur bearers caught in traps.

Usually shy and wild, the snowy is a regular wintering bird in North Dakota and can often be seen perched conspicuously on haystacks, fence posts and stumps.

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