Vulnerable (assessed July 23, 2021)
Snowy Owls are one of the largest arctic raptors (birds of prey) with heavily feathered feet, thick plumage, and distinct color patterns. Their round body and thick plumage help them maintain the body heat in the cold arctic climate. They are carnivorous and opportunistic hunters, feeding on small mammals, particularly lemmings, but sometimes waterfowls and ptarmigans. Snowy Owls have a special adaptation that allows them to hunt in the dark. They have hairs around their eyes that act as acoustic antennae and bounce sound waves into the owl's ears. This capability is useful during the winter when most animals hibernate or burrow underground.
Snowy Owls breed in the Arctic and are lifelong monogamous species. Unlike other owl species that use the nests built by other birds, female Snowy Owls build their nest on the ground selected by the males and reuse it for several years. They lay white eggs in a clutch size of 3–11 eggs with an incubation period of 32 days and a nestling period of 18–25 days. During the breeding season, they are extremely protective of their nest from other species, and have been known to even attack Arctic wolves and humans.
In Inuit culture, the Snowy Owl is considered a source of wisdom and guidance, highlighting their significance. Some Inuit communities believe that Snowy Owls shepherd the spirits of the dead safely to the afterlife. Ukpik, ᐅᒃᐱᒃ, is the Inuktitut word for Snowy Owl.
Climate change is a major threat to the survival of Snowy Owls, as a warming Arctic could lead to a loss of habitat and a decrease in prey. According to the recent red list assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Snowy Owl is listed as vulnerable for the first time, after research showed that adult populations had declined substantially. According to IUCN, if the rate of population decline "proves to be even greater, the species may be further moved to the 'endangered' list." Additionally, during migration, Snowy Owls face collisions with communication towers, wind turbines, fast-moving vehicles, and sometimes even airplanes.
The researchers working on Project SNOWSTORM for 25 years in North America to study the movement ecology of Snowy Owls over a full annual cycle, reported that over the arctic breeding grounds, there are dramatic highs and lows in the breeding population of Snowy Owls in North America, due to the decrease in the population of lemmings, which is the primary diet of Snowy Owls and identified them as the irruptive migrants.
Long-term research and monitoring on their breeding and non-breeding grounds, satellite tracking, and banding must be done to better understand the challenges this species faces.
The populations of Snowy Owls are genetically homogenous in North America. According to Denver Holt (Founder and President of Owl Research Institute), Snowy Owls have experienced a continuous decline in their numbers from 18,000–21,000 years ago in North America. Genomic researchers from the Owl Research Institute have reported that Snowy Owls are not at risk for genetic problems but have been proven to be extremely sensitive to global warming, as predicted by the different climate change models.
The high rate of movement of Snowy Owls throughout the vast areas could make the field studies more challenging, and therefore genomic techniques such as eDNA (environmental DNA) metabarcoding can be an efficient and complimentary tool for the research of these vulnerable arctic species where the visual census is difficult, and it will empower the scientists to design the more timely and effective conservation strategies.