The snowy owl is one of the most distinct and recognizable owls in the world, but, despite its familiarity, it can be surprisingly difficult to identify in the field. This raptor's superb camouflage helps shield it from notice, but birders who are familiar with its field marks can easily identify snowy owls.
Male Snowy Owl Identification
Male snowy owls are superbly camouflaged and have few field marks that are easily noticeable. It is that lack of field marks, however, that often helps birders identify these owls properly.
- Yellow eyes: The brilliant yellow eyes of the snowy owl are one of its most distinct features. The pupil is dark but can be hard to see, and the overall brightness of the eyes stands out well against the bird's light face.
- Dark bill: The snowy owl has a dark, sharply hooked bill that pokes out of its light face. The amount of bill that is visible can vary widely, and birds that are colder or subject to more wind may be showing very little bill.
- Round head: The snowy owl has a very round head and when the bird is perched in its typical huddled posture, there appears to be very little neck.
- White plumage: Male snowy owls are almost pure white, though the younger the bird, the more black spotting or barring it may show. This coloration helps conceal the birds perfectly in their tundra habitat, and birders must look carefully for shape and other markings when the plumage blends into the background.
- Round shape: Overall, the snowy owl has a large, round shape. Depending on the angle from which the bird is viewed, it may seem more like an oval or tapered shape, but the round head and short tail are always distinct
Female Snowy Owl Identification
Female snowy owls are more heavily marked than their male counterparts, but they can still be confusing for birders who might not be expecting an owl known for its white plumage to be so colorful. These four field marks are the keys to proper female snowy owl identification:
- Yellow eyes: Like the males, female snowy owls have bright yellow eyes. These can often be difficult to see, however, particularly on a bright day when the bird may have its eyes closed or squinted. If the eyes are only narrowly open, they can appear dark, particularly at a distance.
- White breast: The female snowy owl has a plain white face, throat, and breast that forms a triangular white patch surrounded by barring. Older owls will have less barring, but the V-shape on the breast is always present to some degree.
- Heavy barring: Unlike the almost pure white males, female snowy owls are heavily barred with brown-black chevrons. The heaviest barring is on the crown, wings, and back, with slightly lighter barring on the flanks and abdomen. As the birds' age or the plumage becomes worn, the barring may become less distinct and paler overall.
- Round shape: Snowy owls of both genders have a round shape that is accentuated by their large size. Particularly when perched on the ground, these birds may seem to have no shape at all other than a round blob thanks to their round body, very short neck and round head.
Seeing an owl in flight is a treat, and being able to identify the bird on the wing is even more exciting. Fortunately, snowy owls are some of the easiest owls to identify in flight, and birders can take the time to appreciate the bird's beauty and the adaptations it has for its extreme northern range.
- Rounded wings: The broad, rounded wings of a snowy owl help create the silent flight this bird needs to attack unsuspecting prey. The feathers are also noticeably broad to help stifle the sound, yet these birds are still superb fliers.
- Plumage markings: In flight, the markings of a snowy owl can be more easily visible than when the bird is perched. The heaviest barring is on the upper wings, head, back, and abdomen, with female birds being much more heavily marked than the almost pure white males
- Feathered legs and feet: To preserve warmth in the Arctic tundra, the snowy owl has heavily feathered legs and feet. In flight, if the bird is taking off or landing, the legs and feet can be easily visible, and birders might even see the dark talons. If the legs and feet are tucked against the body, however, they blend in with the body plumage and are much less visible.
Identifying From a Distance
Snowy owls are solitary birds and generally avoid areas with a lot of activity. Because of that, most birders see them first from a great distance, though high-quality birding binoculars or a spotting scope can seem to bring the birds up close for better views. Knowing what to look for from far away, however, is often the first step toward identifying snowy owls.
- Open habitat: Habitat can be the best clue to a snowy owl's identification. Their preferred habitats are open areas with light snow cover, including dunes and beaches, fields and woodland edges in agricultural areas. The birds will often perch directly on the ground or on a low perch such as a rock or fence post while they survey the territory, though they can also perch on roofs or higher poles, particularly when they venture into unfamiliar areas during irruptions.
- Round shape: Even from a distance, the round shape of these birds stands out. When seen from far away, the snowy owl might look similar to a lost white volleyball, beach ball or discarded plastic bag—but look more closely and you may be surprised at the bird you find!
- Plumage markings: While the nearly pure white male birds won't show markings that can be discerned from a distance, female snowy owls are heavily barred and that barring can still be seen from far away. Look for a white face, throat, and breast contrasting with a heavily marked crown, back, wings and flanks to determine the gender of the bird. On the white face of both male and female birds, the darker spots of the eyes and bill can still stand out.
Snowy owls might seem easy to identify and they are familiar to many birders, but seeing one in the wild can be quite different than checking out a field guide. Understanding the different field marks of both male and female snowy owls can help you be prepared to identify these birds whenever you might be fortunate enough to spot one.