Now is a great time to spot snowy owls across the landscape

Brett Blank GFP Conservation Foreman
Farm Forum

Snowy owls are a member of the typical owl family, but they aren’t what most of us would expect to see when we think of owls in northeast South Dakota. Snowy owls have migrated into our area this winter in search of food, and now is a great time to have a chance at viewing one.

Native to arctic North America and Eurasia, snowy owls tend to show up irregularly in South Dakota and are not overly abundant, so there’s no guarantee you’ll see one when you head out looking. However, wintertime is the best chance to see one of these stunning birds.

The snowy owl is the largest owl when it comes to weight. These owls weigh anywhere from 3.5 to 6.5 pounds. For comparison’s sake, great horned owls weigh only 2.5 to 3.5 pounds. Snowy owls stand 20 to 28 inches tall and have a wingspan ranging from 4 to 5 feet.

A snowy owl’s diet consists of voles, squirrels, rabbits and other small mammals. In their native range snowy owls depend on lemmings as their primary food source during nesting season. A lemming is a small rodent similar to a vole that is found in the tundra. Snowy owls are so dependent on lemmings that in times when lemmings are scarce snowy owls may not even nest. When they do nest, their clutch sizes range from 3 to 11 eggs, with more eggs being laid when lemmings are more plentiful.

Snowy owls need to consume 7 to 12 mice per day to meet their food requirement and can eat up to 1,600 lemmings per year. Most species of owls feed at night, but snowy owls often feed during the day. They mostly hunt by sight, usually from a perch, and they swoop down to catch their prey with their talons. Perches around here where you may sight an owl would be fence posts, power poles, hay bales and rock piles.

What makes snowy owls so attractive is there striking white color and the simple fact that they aren’t something you see every day. Male snowy owls are predominantly white with few speckles. Females and young owls are white and heavily barred. Their coloration makes them very adaptable to living in the arctic tundra. In open winters when the landscape lacks snow cover these owls will stick out like a sore thumb, and so far this winter is providing a great opportunity to spot these owls.