What animal would you consider to be one of the wisest? For many, it is the owl. This majestic bird is considered by various cultures as a guide that will see you through the next stage of life. It is undisputed that these birds are able to see well, even in the night, but does this alter their diet? Regardless of where they live, there seems to be a common theme. So then what prey does an owl see with its large, wise eyes? What does an owl consider a worthy meal?
What Do Owls Eat?
The owl is considered to be an opportunistic feeder, meaning that it will exploit other options if the desired food is limited. Being a bird of prey, these animals rely heavily on their carnivorous habits. In terms of meat, owls will feed upon small rodents, amphibians, reptiles, and even other birds. These animals have been known to, on occasion, eat fruits yet generally are considered meat-eaters. The variation in diet can be found when comparing the different species of owl and where they live, as this has an impact on the prey items available to them.
The Owl – Basic Facts
Owls are found in the order Strigiformes, which can be divided into two distinguishable families, Tytonidae and Strigidae. There is only one species found in Tytonidae, the Barn Owl (Tyto alba), making it monotypic. The more commonly known owls belong to the family Strigidae, which is comprised of over 220 living species. When comparing the two, Tytonidae have a more heart-shaped facial region compared to the round ones found in Strigidae. The “true owls” also have ear tufts while Tytonidae does not.
Overall, there are more than 225 owl species found worldwide, many of which finding their specific meal preferences. Owls are found in every corner of the world, aside from Antarctica, making them incredibly widespread. With such a large distribution, it makes perfect sense to look more closely at the most diverse species to compare their diets.
What Do Owls Eat in the Wild?
As mentioned before, owls are mainly carnivorous only preying on other options when needed. Depending on the habitat that they have occupied, the meal options may vary from species to species. To gain a better understanding of meal versatility, it is best to look at the most contrasting species.
The Screech Owls, more importantly the Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) is a member of the Strigidae family. These animals are short and stocky with a circular face and large ear tufts. As the name suggests, this species is found inhabiting sections of the Eastern United States.
They typically reside in areas with mixed woods or deciduous forests, but can occupy almost any habitat that is near water. They are primarily nocturnal, meaning that they look for prey during the hours of the night.
As for what an Eastern Screech Owl eats, they mostly look for various types of insects. They will also be attracted to small mammals such as mice or voles.
In addition to these prey items, they consume reptiles, amphibians, and small birds. Due to their proximity to humans, they have even been found occasionally stopping by bird feeders put out by homeowners.
The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is one of the only living members of the family Tytonidae. They are uniquely characterized by their heart-shaped face and sharp, pointed beak. They have no visible ear tufts which can be found in other members of the “true owls”.
This species was once presumed to be the land bird with the largest distribution, living on every continent aside from Antarctica. They live in areas that have open farmland, unlike the typical owl that prefers woodlands.
Due to the habitat that these species are found in, Barn Owls mainly consume small mammals found in fields. These include field voles and wood mice. They will also use their nocturnal senses to find bats, rabbits, and the occasional small bird.
One of the largest species of owl is the Eurasian Eagle-owl (Bubo bubo) which is typically found to have a wingspan of 4 to 6 feet, or 131 to 188 centimeters. They are often quickly recognized by their large orange eyes and long ear tufts which extend past their circular heads.
This particular species is found strictly in Eurasia, encompassing most of this region. They prefer wooded areas where they can hide during the day, hunting only at night.
With such a big mass, this animal can move to the top of the food chain and expand their diet. In fact, they will eat just about anything that they can manage to catch. For mammalian prey, they generally consume voles, foxes, hares, rats, and mice. Oftentimes, they will even take down an injured deer fawn.
They also feed upon various birds such as crows, ducks, seabirds, grouse and even other owls.
There are a few species of owls that need to modify their diet to where they live. Instead of resting in trees during the day, the Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) takes to the underground.
These compact individuals weigh less than half a pound or 150 grams. They have long legs, speckled bodies and a round face without the appearance of ear tufts.
The Burrowing Owl is still a member of Strigidae, yet it chooses to dig in deserts, grasslands, and rangelands where there is dry ground with low vegetation. They are found in the treeless rangelands of South and North America.
This species is diurnal, choosing to hunt during the day where they find small mammals such as mice and moles. These prey options are most abundant during the late spring months to early summer.
Once the warmer seasons are over, they will modify their preferences to include insects, beetles, reptiles, and amphibians.
Unlike other owls, the Burrowing Owl will even consume plants, seeds, and fruits, making them more of an omnivore compared to other “true owls”.
What Do Owls Eat in Captivity?
Perhaps you’ve visited a zoo or aviary and noticed a pair of large owl eyes staring back at you. Now that you know what a wild owl will find, how about those born or held in captivity? Do their diets differ from their free relatives?
Regardless of the species of owl, they all require a good amount of meat. Protein requirements may be met through a variety of options such as (previously killed) mice, rats or chicks.
Although it might seem tempting, these captive birds should not be fed worms, insects or amphibians as most of these animals could make the individual ill.
How Do Owls Eat?
Understanding what an owl will consume is only a part of the equation. But, how exactly do these birds eat their kill if they don’t have imposable thumbs?
These birds of prey are limited in regards to what they can eat and how it goes down the throat. They don’t have thumbs or fingers to hold onto their prey and they actually are unable to chew their food.
Without any teeth, an owl is resorted to breaking their prey up into pieces. Depending on the size of the meal item, they may be able to even swallow it whole.
For larger mammalian prey, they pluck a few feathers off before tearing it apart. This behavioral trait depends on the species.
How Do Owls Digest their Food?
Once a meal is either swallowed whole or broken down into smaller pieces it is moved along. But what happens to those prey items that have been swallowed whole? How can it get absorbed into the body?
Most birds have what is considered a “crop”. This is a place for food to be stored until needed later. Owls do not have this adaptation. Instead, they have to swallow their food and pass it along to the digestive system.
What an owl does have, however, is a stomach that aids in digestion, taking care of the parts that cannot be fully broken down.
Let’s say that an owl swallows a chick whole. This item is moved directly to the glandular stomach, which starts to break down the meat with enzymes and acids.
The muscular stomach, or gizzard, will then filter out the parts of the chick that cannot be absorbed into the body. This includes the bones, fur, teeth or feathers. The bits that can be passed along are excreted through a vent, along with the acid used in the digestive process.
Did you know that this is the white part found in bird droppings? With this out of the system, the inedible parts of the chick are held inside the gizzard for up to 10 hours before being removed in the form of a pellet.
What Are Owl Pellets?
You may have taken a science course where your instructor handed you a piece of owl “droppings”, asking you to break it apart and find the mysteries inside. These round balls are actually not poop at all. Instead, they are regurgitated food that could not be properly digested into the body of the owl.
Pellets contain a myriad of animal parts such as fur, teeth, bones, feathers and insect shells. As gross as that may sound, these findings are used commonly by scientists.
When studying which species occupy a certain ecosystem, biologists quickly try to find out if there are any owls present in the area. This is because of the information that they can receive through the pellets. Being birds of prey, owls typically consume just about most prey species in the specific region. Because of this information, scientists pick apart owl pellets to correctly identify the species found in their regurgitated pellets. If there is a certain species in decline, then the owls will show that in their pellets.
What Do Owls Drink?
It’s safe to say that most of us have never seen an owl take a drink of water from a nearby puddle or body of water. This is because they get their water from a different source.
When a predator consumes various prey items, they are absorbing more than just fat and proteins. They are also taking in water. Owls experience the same phenomenon.
The most common way that an owl will receive water is through the consumption of their prey. As a rule of thumb, it has been proven that a bird will ingest one gram of water for every gram of fat.
There have been only a few rare cases of an observer witnessing an owl drinking while taking a bath, but that is seldom the case.
How Do Owls See in the Dark?
Most owls are referred to as nocturnal, choosing to find their prey in the dark. If we were to try to do that, we most likely wouldn’t be able to find anything. So how does an owl use its eyes to see in the late hours of the night?
There are three reasons behind how an owl can see so well in the dark.
Firstly, they have more rods than cones. Rods are photoreceptors found in the eye and are responsible for sight in low light levels. Cones are primarily used to see color. Therefore, owls have sacrificed their ability to see more vibrant colors in order to have better night vision.
The next adaptation is the size of their eyes. With such a wide eye, these animals can pick up any sudden light rays elicited by prey.
The last trait is called tapeturn lucidum, where a mirror-like reflector allows for enhanced visual sensitivity during low light. These characteristics enhance an owl’s night vision, allowing them to hunt in the dark.
What Other Adaptations Allow for Nocturnal Habits?
Having good night vision is only one factor when considering hunting in the evening. If you think about it, those who find items in the dark have to be stealthy as everything seems quieter in the night. Owls use a few other adaptations to allow for nocturnal hunting.
One such trait are their specially designed wing feathers. When taking flight, the sound is muffled, allowing them to sneak up on any quick mammalian prey. These animals also use directional hearing to locate their next meal. In fact, an owl can hear a mouse step on a leaf. These adaptations are pinnacle in nocturnal hunters.
What Predators Do Owls Have?
These birds of prey are found near the top of the food chain, but that does not mean that they are safe. Even some of the animals that they try to consume can give them a run for their money.
Depending on the size of the owl, possible predators may include, cats, dogs, foxes, eagles, and other raptors. But where they often find themselves in trouble is when preserving their eggs. Various species of birds, rats, buzzards and squirrels are found stealing from an owl’s nest.
Can Owls Actually Turn their Heads All the Way Around?
The simple answer to this question is, yes. But the way in which they are able to do this is an incredibly unique trait. Many species of owls are able to rotate their heads a whopping 270 degrees, nearly all the way around. This is done without breaking any blood vessels or tendons. This is achieved by a flexible neck and an artery system that continues to push blood to the brain, even while the head is twisted around. With such a feature, these birds don’t need to have eyes in the back of their heads.
Why are Owls Considered Wise?
The reason for which an owl is called wise can be found in one of their most widely discussed physical traits, the eyes. With such large optics, these animals seem to “see all and know all”. Although this may not be true, they are incredibly observant. Perhaps the owl is wise after all. Interestingly enough, a group of owls is called a parliament, adding to its legacy of knowledge and wisdom.
What Is the Rarest Species of Owl?
Out of all of the living species of owl, the Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Bubo blakistoni) is found to be the most elusive. It is only found in the remote locations of Russia, China, and Japan. Some claim that a few exist in North Korea.
Due to the loss of habitat in these regions, the Blakiston’s Fish Owl is listed as Endangered. Another risk is their desire to be trapped by fur-traders in Russia. You would assume that they would be easy to spot because they are the largest, weighing in at about 6 to 9 pounds, or 2 to 4 kilograms.
The owl is an opportunistic forager that typically finds food in the darkest time of the day. Being at the top of the food chain, this bird of prey feeds mainly on carnivorous options such as rodents, amphibians, reptiles, and other birds. These wide-eyed animals use their adaptations to hunt with stealth, perhaps proving that they are indeed filled with wisdom.
Regardless of their intelligence, the owl is a formidable and well-adapted animal that excels at finding food of all sizes.