How Do Snowy Owls Get their Food?

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Snowy owls seek out their prey during anytime of the day and use ‘sit-and-wait’ hunting method. But most commonly, they hunt at dawn and dusk. They are highly nomadic species and so they migrate long distances in search of their favorite food: lemmings. Snowy owls are silent but extremely patient hunters. Before soaring off, they perch for hours and at times, stoop down or swivel their heads to focus at the potential prey. With its remarkable hearing and eyesight, the bird first hovers-and-scan and then swoops down from about 20 centimeters high to pounce on a vole scurrying under the snow. If the owl manages to catch it, it swallows the rodent whole with headfirst.

During breeding season, snowy owls may chase the shorebirds and grab them during flight. First, the owl perches and scans; as it spots something, it stands upright and leans its neck forwards perhaps to have a better look; then, it soars off in pursuit while flapping its wings. If the prey is small, the owl often swallows it head-first.

As the snowy owl spots its prey, it uses different hunting strategies like drift, chase, slip, drop and run.

For hunting, the owl uses two methods:

  • It may perch and scan for hours; or
  • It may hover-hunt (hover and scan) its prey, if the current of air is strong enough to withhold the owl

For grabbing its prey, the owl uses two methods:

  • sweep (getting hold of the prey one-footed as the bird drifts in the air); or
  • wallop (descends on the prey on land)


Holt, Denver W., Matt D. Larson, Norman Smith, Dave L. Evans and David F. Parmalee. 2015. Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Snowy Owl”. All About Birds: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Cornell University

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