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What Do Owls Eat? 7 Facts About These Skilled Hunters

Erica J. Sánchez Vázquez October 29, 2020

Owls are quintessential creatures of the night (with a few exceptions mentioned below). Beautiful and formidable predators, they inspire admiration, fear, and a sense of mystery.

There are more than 200 species of owls around the world. They are divided into two families, Tytonidae (Barn Owls) and Strigidae, which includes all other owl species. Owls in both families have evolved outstanding hunting skills that allow them to catch their prey with quiet precision.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl by Alessandro Cancian/Shutterstock

With their superb hunting abilities, owls are truly fascinating. Here are some interesting facts about them that you might not know:

Exclusively Carnivorous

Owls eat other animals, from small insects such as moths or beetles, to large birds, even as large as an Osprey. A few species of owls mostly eat fish, such as Ketupa (fish-owl) and Scotopelia (fishing-owl) species, found in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, respectively. Owls spend much of their active time hunting for food. The Snowy Owl, for example, may have to try quite a few times, but can catch three to five lemmings a day.

Owls Cannot Chew

Like other birds, owls do not have teeth to chew their food. They use their sharp, hooked bills to tear the flesh of prey into pieces, often crushing their skulls and other bones. They can also swallow small prey whole, usually head-first. Any body parts that owls are not able to digest, such as bones and fur, are regurgitated hours later in the form of a pellet.

Barred Owl regurgitating pellet

A Barred Owl regurgitates a pellet. Original video by Justin Hoffman

Not All Owls Are Nocturnal Feeders

Although we typically associate them with the night, some owls are diurnal, or active during the day. Species in northern latitudes, such as Snowy Owls, must be able to hunt throughout the continuously bright days of summer. In western mountain forests, Northern Pygmy-Owls hunt small birds during the day, and although they mostly hunt at night, Burrowing Owls are often seen outside their burrows in daylight. Some others are crepuscular, active during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk.

Guided by Sound

Mostly nocturnal, owls rely on outstanding hearing abilities to find their prey in the darkness. Barn Owls, for example, are able to locate small animals hiding in vegetation by using their auditory sense alone. The Great Gray Owl (in the video below) can find prey under almost a foot of snow. Owls’ flat faces work like dish antennas — the feathers around the face direct soundwaves to their ears, which are hidden on the sides. Many owl species also have a slight asymmetry in ear position, which helps them determine target distance.https://www.youtube.com/embed/w4OH6gMN6vY?autoplay=1&enablejsapi=1&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fabcbirds.org

Bountiful Years Bring Lots of Chicks

The amount of food available affects owls’ reproduction. While Barn Owls typically lay four to seven eggs, they have been known to lay as many as 12 during years with high rodent populations. In years of food scarcity, however, some owls might refrain from breeding altogether.

Stealthy Hunters

The flight of owls is nearly silent, which allows them to approach and then pounce on unsuspecting targets. Because the wings’ surface area is larger than most birds in proportion to body mass, they can glide more slowly without stalling and dropping to the ground. Their feathers also play a role – their shape and soft texture help muffle the sound of the owl’s flight.

Owls’ Water Needs

Owls can drink, but they mostly get their water needs met by the animals they eat. During metabolism, the hydrogen contained in the animals’ fat gets oxidized, yielding around one gram of water for every gram of fat. During northern winters, owls sometimes may be seen eating snow.

Protecting Owls

While owls’ extraordinary hunting skills and nocturnal habits are the stuff of legend, the dangers they face are often overlooked. Threats like habitat losspesticides, and vehicle collisions have already sent a third of all owl species in the United States into decline.

The Northern Spotted Owl (a subspecies of the Spotted Owl) has been protected by the Endangered Species Act since 1990, and six additional owl species have been placed on Partners in Flight‘s Yellow Watch List, indicating the need for conservation action.

American Bird Conservancy and other organizations are taking a multipronged approach to helping owls by improving key habitat, banning dangerous pesticides, and pushing for improved protections.


Erica J. Sánchez Vázquez is ABC’s Digital Content Manager


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