What Do Owls Eat? – Owl Feeding Habits & FAQs

Owl eating a mouse in snow

Known for their nocturnal hunting, owls have varied diets. But what exactly do they eat? Well, it is a bit of a mystery, and it depends on what kind of owl they are, where they live, and even what time of year it is.

Furthermore, these birds’ eating habits are not just about what they catch and consume but also how they do it. Basically, owls have specific adaptations that make them skilled hunters.

In this article, we will discuss the dietary habits of owls in detail. You will learn what owls actually eat, the role of owl pellets in understanding these avians’ diet, interesting facts about how they hunt, and more.

What Do Owls Typically Eat?

Short eared owl perched in snow feeding on mouse

Owls’ diets vary by breed, season, and location, but they commonly eat rodents like voles, rats, and mice. They can also be seen munching on fish, frogs, insects, squirrels, rabbits, tiny birds, snakes, and other small animals, which shows their diverse hunting skills and adaptability.

For easy reference, let’s take a closer look at the diverse range of foods that comprise an owl’s menu:

  • Small foxes
  • Rodents
  • Slugs
  • Crabs
  • Fish
  • Shrews
  • Mice
  • Crayfish
  • Hares
  • Squirrels
  • Voles
  • Raccoons
  • Doves
  • Snakes
  • Frogs
  • Songbirds
  • Woodpeckers
  • Salamanders
  • Worms
  • Hawks
  • Crows
  • Eels
  • Chubs
  • Egrets
  • Sunfish
  • Kangaroo rats
  • Skunks
  • Bats
  • Pocket gophers
  • Moles
  • Porcupines
  • Rabbits

While they primarily feed on little animals like rodents, birds, and reptiles, their menu can also include a wide variety of other creatures such as fish, insects, and amphibians. In other words, they are not picky eaters at all.

Fun Fact: While some species of owls, like the Great-horned Owl, belong to the group of birds that eat carrion or deceased animal remains, their primary preference is to consume prey they have actively hunted and killed.

What Are Owl Pellets and What Do They Tell Us?

Generally speaking, owl pellets are the undigested parts of an owl’s meal. To be specific, they contain materials like teeth, skulls, claws, fur, and feathers.

Since these items can’t pass safely through these birds’ digestive systems, they are regurgitated as compact masses approximately 12 hours after ingestion.

Take a look at this picture to see what owl pellets usually look like:

Owl pellet consisting of grey animal fur and little bones

Here is another cool photo of an owl’s pellet, where you can see a tiny mouse skull:

Owl pellet with mouse skull and bones

Meanwhile, the image below displays a dissected owl pellet, providing a clear view of its real contents:

Dissected owl pellet

You can also watch the following video to get an idea of how owls cough up owl pellets:

Incredible: 30 Barn Owl Pellets Regurgitated By Adults/nestlings: The Largest Compilation Ever

Interestingly, a study in 2015 revealed that owl pellets can remain intact for several months. This durability makes them an excellent tool for studying owl feeding habits over extended periods.

Fun Fact: Owls are like nature’s mystery bags. In reality, just one owl pellet can hold the leftovers of as many as six little mammals.

Interesting Facts About Owl Feeding Habits

Barn owl caught a mouse and eats it

Now that we have figured out what owls love to eat, it is time to discuss the cool part. Here are nine interesting facts about owl feeding habits that you need to know:

1. Owls are apex predators

Often perceived as mysterious nocturnal creatures, owls actually sit at the top of the food chain. This apex predator status means they have few natural enemies in the wild.

Yet, while generally free from predators, certain species of owls can fall prey to other animals, depending on their size, color, habitat, and specific breed.

For instance, smaller owls might be targeted by animals like wildcats, foxes, raccoons, and weasels.

2. Owls have echolocation-like skills

Owls possess remarkable hearing abilities that allow them to locate prey in complete darkness, akin to echolocation. Basically, echolocation involves producing sounds and interpreting the returning echoes to identify objects.

While owls do not echolocate in the same way as bats, their acute hearing effectively serves a similar purpose. They can detect and hone in on the slightest rustles and movements.

Interestingly, by interpreting the sounds reflected from their surroundings, owls can determine their prey’s size, shape, distance, and direction.

3. Some owls are diurnal feeders

Contrary to widespread belief, not all owls are nocturnal. A few species are actually diurnal, meaning they are active during daylight hours.

For example, in northern latitudes, Snowy Owls adapt to the continuous daylight of summer by hunting throughout the day.

Furthermore, I was hiking in the mountains once when I spotted a small owl hunting in broad daylight. It swooped down swiftly and caught a sparrow in its talons before landing on a tree branch.

When I got back to the lodge, I looked it up and learned it was a Northern Pygmy Owl, which often feeds in western forests during the day.

When I told my colleague about it, she said she often sees Burrowing Owls outside their holes during the day, too. I realized that while owls are nocturnal, some have adapted to hunt whenever prey is available.

4. owls are considered speedy eaters

Owls are known for being fast eaters, which is a trait common among species that feed at night.

This rapid consumption is typical of their hunting and feeding habits, ensuring they make the most of their nocturnal activities.

However, note that this behavior has its downsides. As a matter of fact, fast eating in owls has been linked to obesity. It has also been connected to an increased risk of heart problems.

5. Seasonal factors influence owl feeding patterns

Seasonal changes significantly impact owls’ feeding habits. During different times of the year, the availability of prey varies, influencing what and how much owls eat.

In winter, for example, some prey species hibernate or become scarce. This leads owls to adapt in two ways. They hunt different types of small animals. Or they change their hunting patterns.

6. Owls have unique water sources

Owls typically meet their hydration needs through the animals they consume.

When metabolized, the fat in their prey’s body yields water — about one gram of water for every gram of fat. This efficient process fulfills most of their water requirements.

Fun Fact: Did you know that owls in chilly places sometimes eat snow to quench their thirst?

7. Different types of owls have their favorite foods

Different owl breeds have distinct favorite foods. For instance, the Blakiston’s Eagle-owl, Eurasian Eagle-owl, Verreaux’s Eagle-owl, Barn Owl, and Snowy Owl predominantly feast on fish.

Conversely, species like the Great-horned Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Barred Owl, and Burrowing Owl show a preference for eating snakes.

Fun Fact: Surprisingly, owls can swim and dive to catch fish. However, once in the water, they are vulnerable as they have no means of defense.

8. Owls are opportunistic feeders

Owls are generally opportunistic feeders, adapting their diet based on what’s available in their habitat. Specifically, changes in prey availability due to factors like migration influence their feeding choices.

Once, I observed a fascinating example of an owl’s opportunistic feeding behavior in my backyard. I noticed a Great-horned Owl perched on a tree, which usually preyed on small mammals.

However, during this time, there was an unusual influx of large insects in the area. Surprisingly, I witnessed the owl shifting its focus to these insects.

It skillfully caught them mid-air, a departure from its typical hunting method. This change in diet was clearly a response to the increased availability of these insects over their usual prey.

9. The more food they have, the better they can have owlets

It may come as a surprise, but the availability of food directly influences owls’ reproductive habits.

Take a look at Barn Owls. According to the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), they lay about 4 to 7 eggs. But when there are lots of mice around, they can even yield up to 12 eggs.

Conversely, in years when food is scarce, some owls may choose not to breed at all.

How Do Owls Hunt Their Prey?

Grey owl with prey on its mouth

Most of the time, owls hunt from perches like branches or posts. These birds wait to spot prey before swooping down with their legs and talons outstretched.

On the other hand, some may glide briefly from their perch before dropping on their target. Basically, they use surprise and speed to their advantage.

Meanwhile, other types of owls opt for gliding or quartering flights as they search for food. When they spot prey, they descend toward it, keeping their head in line with the target until the final moment.

At that point, they extend their feet with sharp talons, ready to capture their meal efficiently.

Interestingly, when a smaller meal is snagged by owls, it’s either gobbled up right away or taken away in the beak. But when the catch is big, it’s firmly grasped by the owls’ strong talons and flown off with.

Fun Fact: Did you know owls have special feathers that make them stealthy flyers? They possess feathery fringes that help them sneak up on their prey without making a sound.

How Do Owls Consume and Digest Their Food?

European owl eating a grasshopper

Owls consume their food in a unique way: they swallow their prey whole. Since birds lack teeth, they cannot chew their food. Instead, their digestive system is specially adapted to handle an entire prey.

The first key player in an owl’s digestive process is the proventriculus, or glandular stomach. Here, the digestible parts of their meal are broken down into a liquid form.

This process ensures that the nutritious pieces of their prey are efficiently extracted.

Next, the meal moves into the gizzard, which is a muscular part of the stomach. To be specific, the gizzard works like a grinder, breaking down hard structures and squeezing the digestible food into the owls’ intestines.

Meanwhile, the indigestible parts like fur, bones, and teeth are compacted into a pellet, which the owl eventually regurgitates.

What Do Baby Owls Eat?

Baby owls or owlets rely entirely on their parents for food, which typically consists of rodents, fish, and reptiles. Yet, it is important to note that they do not receive partially digested food from their moms like other birds.

To be specific, the parents skillfully tear the food into small, manageable pieces, ensuring the owlets can swallow them whole.

In terms of quantity, a typical owlet needs to consume a substantial amount each day to support its rapid growth. This equates to about 2 to 3 chicks or 4 to 5 mice every 24 hours.

Fun Fact: Baby owls don’t fight over their meals. They actually use their voices to decide who gets to eat first. The owlets that are not as hungry will patiently wait their turn and let their hungrier siblings enjoy their food first.

Frequently Asked Questions

Little owl eating larva on stump

What Do Owls Most Commonly Eat?

As carnivores or meat eaters, owls predominantly feed on rodents like voles, squirrels, rats, and mice. However, you should note that their diverse diet also includes fish, other birds, reptiles, insects, and amphibians.

Do Owls Attack and Eat Small Dogs?

Yes, owls may attack small dogs. But like other birds of prey, keep in mind that owls generally do not see canines as potential meals. Instead, they consider them as invaders and threats.

However, very small dogs, like Chihuahuas, can occasionally fall into their prey category due to their size.

Do Owls Eat Fish?

Yes, some owls eat fish. There are two types of owls, called Ketupa and Scotopelia, that absolutely love their slippery meals. In particular, you can spot these special “fish owls” in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In North America, the Short-eared Owl and the Great-horned Owl also include fish in their diet, though it’s not their main food source.

Do Owls Eat Snakes?

Owls love to eat snakes. As opportunistic feeders, they adapt their diet to what’s available around them, including various snake species.

For instance, Eastern Screech Owls often prey on Common Garter Snakes, Rat Snakes, and Eastern Hognose Snakes. On top of that, Burrowing Owls, smaller in size, usually target Smooth Green Snakes.

Do Owls Eat Squirrels?

Being most active at night, squirrels are a common meal for owls. In particular, the nocturnal lifestyle of squirrels aligns with the hunting patterns of many owl species, making them accessible prey.

As a matter of fact, research has shown that Barred and Spotted Owls have a preference for flying squirrels.

Do Owls Eat Vegetables?

Primarily carnivorous, expect that owls only occasionally eat vegetables. However, this is not typical behavior and occurs only under specific circumstances where their regular food sources are unavailable.

Do Owls Eat Fruit?

Even though owls are predominantly meat eaters, they sometimes feast on fruits, plants, and berries. This behavior is rare and usually driven by necessity, particularly in situations where their typical prey is scarce.

On the whole, owls’ diets are as diverse as they are fascinating, reflecting their adaptability in nature. Do you have thoughts, opinions, or questions about owl feeding habits? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

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