Is a Snowy Owl a Predator or Prey?

Snowy owls are primarily predators within their ecosystem. Their skills and tactics to hunt prey are exceptional. Snowy owls, as apex predators, prey on lemmings, rabbits, rodents, birds and fish. A snowy owl adult may eat more than 1,600 lemmings per year. Their vision and hearing abilities help them locate and catch the prey without a lot of hustles.

It would be fair if we called them “great opportunistic predators”.They try to hunt anything that they can catch easily. According to the study, these are known as the sixth or seventh largest species of birds, or raptors. Lemmings are always their favorite targets to hunt.

We have learned that snowy owls are birds of prey. But are there any predators of snowy owls out there that prey on snowy owls? What types of prey do snowy owls have, and who are those predators? We are going to discuss all these curious queries in this article. Let’s delve deep into the gory details of snowy owls as predators and prey!

What are the Snowy Owls’ Prey?


According to the study of Peregrine Hunt organization’s researchers, snowy owls prey on mammals (such as hares and squirrels) and birds (such as seabirds and ptarmigan). They also eat voles and small rodents.

One family of snowy owls can eat dozens of lemmings just to survive. When this prey is not found, snowy owls can even consume insects, crustaceans, amphibians, fish, and meat of big dead animals like seals, beluga whales, walruses, and so on. ~ source

The article on the official website of the U.S. The Fish & Wildlife Service also talks about the prey of snowy owls. It states: ~ source

“Snowy owls eat a variety of food. It may include lemmings, mice, Arctic hares, and ducks. They eat the small prey by swallowing it fully.”

What Are the Natural Predators of Snowy Owls?


The natural predators of snowy owls include humans, wild dogs, Arctic foxes, and predatory birds. The study at Chesapeake Bay Program states that these natural predators hunt snowy owls at the time of breeding. They go to their nests, harass, and kill a few of their young and old. ~ source

However, snowy owls are not known as “prey” items. All of the above-mentioned natural predators are not merely natural predators. They are considered predators of snowy owls due to numerous incidents and situations. Let’s see what one of our Quora colleagues, Timothy Barksdale, said about this topic: ~ source

“Juveniles, branchers, chicks, and eggs are mostly the victims of predators. Although the snowy owls die due to diseases and natural deaths, humans are the main cause of their deaths.”

In our final section, we will look at how humans are killing more snowy owls. Here, Timothy further adds:

Arctic foxes are the first animals that are known as the first natural predators of small young and nests of snowy owls. These smaller foxes have needle-like teeth. But, sometimes, they are unable to predate nests. This is due to female snowy owls who are always there defending their nests and young.”

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Here are some other incidental predators of snowy owls’ eggs and small young:

  • Polar bear
  • Grizzly bear
  • Pomarine Jaeger
  • Glaucous Gull
  • Gyrfalcon
  • Wolves or wolverines

These are mostly opportunistic and aerial predators of snowy owls. Their main target is always the eggs or adults of snowy owls. It is because bigger snowy owls can even kill them in return due to their powerful talons. More than 65% of young snowy owls (adults) die in the first year of their birth. This is a high mortality rate!

How Do Snowy Owls Catch Their Prey?

We have already discussed that owls use hearing as an aid in finding their favorite food. Snowy owls are not different from them. They find their tasty taste in food with the help of their eyesight and hearing. They can spend hours on poles and high places while watching the prey. They can swoop down slowly onto their targeted prey.

Snowy owl

Again, according to the study of Peregrine Hunt organization’s writers, snowy owls live in snowy areas. Then, how do they find and hunt their prey? Here is how snowy owls catch their prey in snow-covered areas: ~ source

“Snow owls live in snow-covered regions. How do they catch their prey when this is the case? Small mammals make unseen tunnels beneath the snow to move. The sharp hearing of snowy owls detects where the lemmings or any rodents are moving. In this way, they detect the exact location of a vole. Then, they grab that out under the snow after pouncing down. The little prey will never have an idea about this attack, and they get caught up on their way.”

Snowy owls can hunt birds from the air, rodents and lemmings from the ground and beneath the ground, and fish in the water. Thus, they have every tactic to catch prey. Just imagine, they can snatch prey while walking on the ground! ~ source

Is A Snowy Owl A Carnivore?

Yes. According to extensive research from the PBS organization, snowy owls are carnivores. It means they eat meat. The authors said: ~ source

“An adult snowy owl can consume more than 1,600 lemmings per year. However, the young snowbirds take a lot of time and effort to become the best and most tactful predators.”

In simple words, snowy owls are consumers. They are not producers. The kind of prey that they hunt mostly depends on where they are living. More lemmings, more snowy owls!

Foraging Behavior of Snowy Owls

Foraging behavior means catching and storing food. Snow owls have foraging behaviors. According to the researchers in the BioKids article, snowy owls can easily store extra food on their perches.

Just imagine that one snowy owl has the capability of storing more than 26 extra lemmings on a perch. This pile of extra food helps them survive when food is scarce. They may also eat snow to get extra water. It fills their water deficiency in snowy areas. ~ source

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Here is an investigation given by the Cool Green Science organization. ~ source

The author, Joe Smith, talks about the snowy owl invasion. 70+ lemmings were killed and stored in one place. The author said this was a good time for snowy owls to hunt lemmings. There were so many lemmings available that the snowy owl could not stop itself from killing them. It kills more than it can consume.

You may wonder what time it was. It was the summer of 2013 when there was a superabundance of lemmings, so the snowy owls were also superabundant. No owl and young were hungry at that time.

Why Do Snowy Owls Make Surprise Flights?

According to the research of Peregrine Hunt organization, we found the following statements: ~ source

snowy owl flying

“The ends of the flight feathers of snowy owls are so soft and feathery. They give them the brilliant ability to silently fly through the air. It is because there must be absolute silence to hunt prey. That’s the reason why snowy owls make silent and surprising flights.

Moreover, the air passing through the soft feathers does not make noise. That’s another reason why snowy owls are known as stealthy creatures. They fly low to the ground while hunting. Hence, it is essential to fly silently so the prey will not be informed that they are here and coming!”

What Is the Biggest Threat to Snowy Owls?

“Climate change” is the biggest threat to snowy owls. It’s the climate that forces them to migrate. In new areas, they face more threats. Likewise, it’s climate change that decreases their prey and as a result, they lose their habitat.

ABC Birds organization Writers have also listed “climate change” as one of the major causes of habitat loss for snowy owls. They said:

“There is no doubt that climate change causes more snowy owl deaths. In the winter season, snowy owls migrate toward areas where prey is easily available. Actually, lemmings and rodents eat green leaves and moss. And there is food scarcity in winter. So, the lemmings and rodent availability becomes less in winter for snowy owls.”

During the migration period, they faced a lot of collisions that caused their deaths. New places give them more challenges and so the predators also change. They mostly die due to collisions with wind turbines, cars, communication towers, and airplanes. ~ source

How Humans Are the Biggest Predators of Snowy Owls?

As we know, humans are at the top of the list of predators of snowy owls. Humans do not eat owls, but they kill most of the snowy owls as compared to other predators. Are you wondering why humans kill them?

snowy owl

They are killed for many reasons, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. The most common causes of death of snowy owls due to humans include crashes with airplanes, gunshot wounds, utility lines, vehicles, entanglement, and electrocution in fishing lines.

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Sometimes, people kill them out of fear that these owls can hurt and attack them. Some people export them to other countries, legally and illegally. Only 290,000 snowy owls are present in this world. This species of owl is very rare and even endangered in the U.S. However, the U.S. government is trying hard to protect these migratory birds. ~ source

Researchers with the Animal Diversity Organization share the following observations: ~ source

“Humans kill snowy owls for trophies and food. They also kill them in order to protect game animals.”


Where does a snowy owl fit in a food web?

Snowy owls fit at the top of the food chain. They always need other animals to consume and survive in harsh conditions. In fact, they are predators of other predators like shrews, insect-eating birds, bats, and weasels. They eat different groups of prey species.

Are snowy owls aggressive?

Yes, snowy owls are aggressive. All About Bird‘s authors have clearly said that snowy owls are territorial. They are sometimes aggressive and vocal in defending their young kids and territory. They can strike wolves, humans, and any other creature that can harm them and their territory. In other words, they hate intruders. Simple! ~ source

Are snowy owls disappearing due to predators?

No, snowy owls are not solely disappearing due to predators. In fact, there are only a few natural predators for snowy owls. They hardly catch the snowy owls because these owls are hard to catch due to their mind-blowing adaptations.

Is a snowy owl a bird of prey?

Yes. Similar to eagles and hawks, snowy owls are predatory birds of prey. The Owl Research Institute states that they are classified as raptors or birds of prey. It also means they fall under the following criteria: ~ source

  • Have curved bills to hunt prey.
  • Use sharp talons and nails to grab and tear the prey.
  • Eats other animals.

So, snowy owls are birds of prey. They are wild hunters!

Is a snowy owl an omnivore?

No, snowy owls are not omnivores. They are not even herbivores. As we have stated before, snowy owls are only carnivores (only meat eaters). On the other hand, omnivores are those species that eat meat and plants. But snowy owls do not eat berries, grasses, or seeds.


In the end, snowy owls are wise birds. However, they play a multifaceted role in the ecosystem. They gaze upon both predators and prey. Their nesting and breeding seasons depend on the availability of prey. So, they decide to migrate and predate areas where a lot of food is available.

I hope you are amazed to learn something new about these sky guardians. If you need clarification, you can ask us. We would be happy to answer all of your queries.