Snowy Owl seen on Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count, Dec 31, 2013. Photo by Peter Vankevich
Snowy Owl seen on Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count, Dec 31, 2013. Note the small tufts. Photo by P. Vankevich

To see more profiles in the Birds of Ocracoke series, click here 

Text and photos by Peter Vankevich

The Snowy Owl is the rarest of birds for Ocracoke. The island was fortunate to have two spend a recent winter here. These owls were seen almost daily from December 26, 2013, until March  8, 2014. 

Although there were several sightings in North Carolina that season, they were seen for brief periods, often for just one day. An exception was Cape Hatteras where one was seen Nov. 26 through Dec. 12 and may have been one of the Ocracoke owls.

Word got out that Ocracoke was a reliable location to see Snowy Owls and several hundred visitors flocked to the island to see them. To read about that “snowy winter,” click here.

They nest on the ground preferring rocky areas, ledges and mounds

Ocracoke looking like the tundra. Photo by P. Vankevich
Ocracoke looking like the tundra. Photo by P. Vankevich

that are snow-free. The number of eggs laid depends on how much food is available before and during breeding season with a range from none at all up to ten and the average between four to seven.

It is one of the largest owls in the world, and has the most northerly breeding and wintering distribution of any of the 230 world-wide owl species. Adult males are almost pure white; adult females are white with brown barring and are larger than males. Young males resemble adult females, but have more spotting on their flight feathers. It takes several years for males to acquire their nearly pure white adult plumage.

Snowy Owl at the Ocracoke airport. Photo by P. Vankevich

Snowy Owls are opportunistic feeders.  One study reported they have eaten 14 species of mammals and 43 species of birds. The will also eat carrion, such as walrus, seal and fish. Their primary food source is a rodent known as a lemming which has high population fluctuations from year-to- year. One study indicated an owl may eat more than 1,600 lemmings in a single year.

Satellite tracking showed that those wintering along the coasts may head out to sea to capture sea ducks as large as eiders and scoters.

As denizens of the Arctic, they must hunt in both light and darkness. Providing there are adequate food sources, some will winter on their breeding grounds while other adults and younger owls will migrate to southern Canada and parts of the northern United States.

There are years when they become nomadic and irruptive migrants–venturing farther south in large numbers and appearing in unexpected locations as they did a few years ago when they were seen not only in North Carolina, but as far south as Florida. These mass movements are

Not usually found on a cedar tree. Photo by P. Vankevich

unpredictable, and the reasons driving this behavior remain unclear. That so many in this

irruption were young owls, some ornithologists speculated it was the result of an unusually successful breeding year forcing them to leave their “crowded” habitats. Another reason given for irruptions is a plummeting of the lemming population.



Best Time to see: Late fall and winter

Where: During their one-time presence, they were often seen in the dunes from South Point to the airport and at the airport. Towards the end of February, one and sometimes both were seen in the pony pasture area perched on the fence railings, on branches of dead cedars on the sound side and on the adjacent dunes. In late December and early January there were a few reports of them perched on houses in the village.


(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)

Click here for the Birds of the Outer Banks checklist

Snowy Owl on Ocracoke. Photo by P. Vankevich
Snowy Owl on Ocracoke. Photo by P. Vankevich

The Snowy Owl is one of the species to help gauge the health of the of Arctic tundra and could be a key indicator in tracking changes to the  environment.

It is the official bird of Quebec. Its name in French is harfang des neiges.

The fascination with owls is not new. They are one of the oldest bird species recognized in prehistoric cave art.

This fascination has not necessarily translated to protecting them.

A search of historic newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries showed that Snowy Owls that appeared in the states were often shot and brought to a taxidermist.

As an example, beginning in November, 1876, there was a massive incursion, which did not turn out favorably for the owls, according to an article published the “Weekly Economist” (Elizabeth City, NC). Citing locations in the eastern region of the United States–excluding North Carolina–the writer  noted there must have been some 60 birds shot in his own (unidentified) vicinity. He reported that a taxidermist in Philadelphia also had about 60 to stuff and gave several other locations where they were seen or shot.  Interestingly, in the article, the writer noted that “nearly all were very dark plumage, and none wore that almost spotless dress which we occasionally see.”