Snowy Owls live in the tundra for most of the year, traveling south only as far as the northern United States in the winter. For the entire year, Snowy Owls live in cold environments where snow is common.
But do they stay white all year long?
Snowy Owls stay white all year long. They take advantage of the reflectiveness of their white feathers to create a beacon, signaling the edge of their territory to competitors. Snowy Owls with some brown plumage are either immature young birds or adult females.
Why Snowy Owls Stay White All Year
Snowy Owls have an advantage in being white because they can effectively reflect the sunlight, sending a warning signal to other owls in the form of a flash of light.
This tells other Snowy Owls that the territory has been claimed and is not available for hunting.
The breast, throat, and face of the Snowy Owl are particularly bright white, giving them the ability to control their reflective beaconing by orienting themselves in certain positions relative to the sun.
Snowy Owls make the most of their white plumage by facing the sun, following it to produce the greatest possible reflective signal, which allows them to effectively mark their territory during the day.
At night, Snowy Owls defend their territory by posturing and vocalizing in a threatening way.
Snowy Owls are able to face the sun in this fashion because they have thick eyelashes to block the harshness of the sun’s rays.
Where Do Snowy Owls Go in the Winter?
The Snowy Owl lives in cold weather constantly, living in the tundra year-round.
In the winter, Snowy Owls sometimes go south to lower Canada and the upper United States.
However, whether or not they migrate depends on the behavior of their prey.
When lemmings, rabbits, and other prey are scarce, Snowy Owls move south looking for food.
Because their migration patterns are inconsistent, conservationists have had difficulty estimating their population size.
However, there are likely 200,000 Snowy Owls in the wild, 24% of which winter in the United States and 50% of which live in Canada for at least part of the year.
Because Snowy Owls live in cold, snow-covered climates year-round, they’re able to take advantage of being white in white surroundings no matter the season.
They keep their thick layer of white feathers throughout the year instead of molting to stay warm.
Sometimes You Will See a Brown Snowy Owl
Although all snowy owls are mostly white, some have a significant amount of brown plumage.
Young snowy owls and adult female snowy owls have more brown plumage than their all-white adult male relatives, especially on the chest, back and head.
Birds That Change Color With the Seasons
The birds that change color with the seasons every year optimize their coloration for the breeding season without being too conspicuous to predators.
They typically have the brightest plumage during the springtime, when they’re looking for a mate, and have more muted coloration during the fall and winter.
Ptarmigans of all species turn from brown and black to white during the winter, some retaining a few dark-colored feathers in the tail.
Ptarmigans develop white “boots,” which are downy feathers that cover the feet during the winter. This keeps their feet warm throughout the coldest months of the year.
The American Goldfinch changes dramatically in color in the fall and the spring and transitions from a grayish, greenish color in the fall and winter to a bright yellow and black coloration in the spring and summer.
September and October are the best times to see American Goldfinches in time of transitioning color.
The Yellow-rumped Warbler has bright plumage during the breeding season, wearing blues, blacks, whites, and buttery yellows.
But during the fall and winter, the Yellow-rumped Warbler loses this colorful plumage and grows brown and black feathers in their place.
In the wintertime, the Common Loon has a gray, brown, and white appearance.
In the spring and summer, the Common Loon develops a black-feathered head, a patterned ring around the neck, and a checkerboard of different colors on the back.
The Chipping Sparrow has a distinctive feather pattern in the spring and summer: red, white, and black coloration around the head.
In the winter, this pattern fades away, leaving a rusty brown appearance and a dull buff color in place of the white.
Mallards have a bright, emerald-feathered head during most of the year, but they lose their green feathers during a midsummer molt between June and September.
During this time, Mallards lose their color and their flight feathers, leaving them temporarily flightless and vulnerable.
Red-winged Blackbirds are all black in the fall and winter and black with red and yellow highlights in the spring and summer.
They molt once a year to accommodate this change and lose their colorful feathers in the fall. In the spring, they grow back again.
Scarlet Tanagers molt twice a year to accommodate stark changes in color during the fall and the springtime.
In the fall, they grow muted, greenish feathers, and in the springtime, they lose the green feathers and grow bright red feathers instead.
The Northern Cardinal has bright red, distinctive plumage year-round.
But in the fall and winter, it gets fresh, grayish plumage in addition to the red, which gives the male cardinal a faded appearance, similar to the way that female cardinals look year-round.
Like the Northern Cardinal, the House Finch is brightly colored year-round but grows dull, grayish feathers that cover the color during the fall and wintertime.
Once spring arrives, these feathers grow to maturity to reveal a full, rich, reddish coloration in the chest and on the head.