What Do Owls Eat?

Owls are large birds of prey with big eyes, hooked beaks, and strong talons. They live in many habitats worldwide, including forests, grasslands, and deserts. Owls are nocturnal animals with feathers adapted to silent flight. 

They use their keen eyesight and hearing to hunt for prey, which includes small mammals, birds, and reptiles. Owls are an important species in many habitats, as they help to control the small mammal populations that can damage crops or spread disease. 

Owls are carnivorous and eat many small animals, including rodents, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and small birds. Their diet depends on the type of prey available in their territory and the size of the owl.

what do owls eat
Snowy Owl hunting in Ontario, Canada

When Do Owls Eat?

Owls are nocturnal animals, which means they are most active at night. They typically hunt at night and sleep during the day. However, owls sometimes hunt during the day if the owls are hungry or if the prey is plentiful.

Because owls are usually nocturnal animals, they have many adaptations that help them successfully hunt at night. These adaptations include:

  • Large eyes that help them see in low light.
  • A layer of cells in their eyes, tapetum lucidum, that reflects light and improves night vision.
  • Ears that can pinpoint the exact location of prey, even in the dark.
  • Feathers adapted to silent flight that allows them to capture prey without detection.

Owls are patient hunters that sit and roost for hours, waiting for prey. Their agile flight capabilities allow them to capture prey, no matter how densely packed the trees and other obstacles are where they are hunting. 

One owl can eat several mice each night, which equals a thousand mice per year. This hunting efficiency helps control the population of small animals that can be pests because of the damage they can do to crops or the diseases they can carry to humans.

What Do Great Horned Owls Eat?

Great horned owls range from Canada to South America, and their diet consists of the prey animals living within the diverse habitats they occupy. Because these raptors are so large, they typically eat larger prey than other owls. 

Like other owl species, Great Horned Owls eat various small animals, such as rabbits, bats, rodents, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Additionally, Great Horned Owls eat larger animals, like skunks, raccoons, and opossums. 

What Do Owls Eat in the Desert?

Important desert owl species include Burrowing Owls, Elf Owls, Great Horned Owls, Long-eared Owls, Screech Owls, and Northern Saw-whet Owls. Some owls burrow into the ground, some nest in crevices, and others nest in tall cacti.

Desert owls eat a variety of small mammals, including rodents, rabbits, and bats. They also eat tarantulas, lizards, snakes, and birds. In the desert, because owls are keystone predators, they help control rat populations and prevent the spread of the diseases they carry.

What Do Owls Eat in the Tundra?

The tundra of the Northern Hemisphere is a challenging habitat for animals to live in, but Snowy Owls that reside there have thrived. They perch on tall trees or hills, waiting for prey to appear. Unfortunately for the owls, the changing climate has a negative effect on prey availability.

Owls in the tundra eat various small animals, including lemmings, voles, mice, shrews, and other rodents, birds, insects, and fish. When food is scarce in the winter, owls will sometimes eat carrion.

Snowy Owls are part of a natural boom and bust cycle with lemming populations.  As lemming numbers increase, the snowy owl population also increases. As lemming numbers decrease from increased predation, owl numbers also decrease.

What Do Baby Owls Eat?

Owl nesting behavior depends on the species and where it lives. Some owls live in their territory year-round, and others migrate between their overwintering grounds and nesting grounds. No matter where owls decide to nest and raise their young, baby owls have a similar diet.

Baby owls, also known as owlets, eat small mammals, like mice, rats, lemmings, and voles. They also eat insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Owl parents regurgitate prey items and feed them to their owlets for several weeks until they are old enough to hunt for their own food.

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