Owl Facts: Habitat, Behavior, Diet (2023)

Hailed for their supposed wisdomand their appetite for pesky rodentsbut derided as pests and subjectsof superstition, owls (families Tytonidae and Strigidae) have had a love/hate relationship with humans since the beginning of recorded history. There are over 200 species of owls, and they might date back to the days of dinosaurs.

Fast Facts: Owls

  • Scientific Name: Tytonidae, Strigidae
  • Common Names: Barn and bay owls, true owls
  • Basic Animal Group: Bird
  • Size: Wingspans from 13–52 inches
  • Weight: 1.4 ounces to 4 pounds
  • Lifespan: 1–30 years
  • Diet:Carnivore
  • Habitat: Every continent except Antarctica, most environments
  • Conservation Status: Most owls are listed as Least Concerned, but a few are Endangered or Critically Endangered.


There are about 216 species of owls divided into two families: Barn and Bay owls (Tytonidae) and the Strigidae (true owls). Most owls belong to the group of so-called true owls, with large heads and round faces, short tails, and muted feathers with mottled patterns. The remaining dozen-plus species are barn owls, which have heart-shaped faces, long legs with powerful talons, and moderate size. Except for the common barn owl, which is found worldwide, the most familiar owls in North America and Eurasia are the true owls.

(Video) Owl facts || Owl species || Owl habitat || Owl diet || Owl behavior || Owl hunting || Owl symbolism

More than half of the owls in the world live in the neotropics and sub-Saharan Africa, and only 19 species reside in the United States and Canada.

One of the most remarkable things about owls is that they move their entire heads when looking at something rather than moving their eyes, like most other vertebrates. Owls need large, forward-facing eyes to gather scarce light during their nocturnal hunts, and evolution couldn't spare the musculature to allow these eyes to rotate. Some owls have astonishingly flexible necks that let them turn their heads three-quarters of a circle, or 270 degrees, compared to 90 degrees for the average human being.

Owl Facts: Habitat, Behavior, Diet (1)

(Video) Owls typically feed their strongest babies first. (In reality though it’s usually the older chicks)

Habitat and Distribution

Owls are found on every continent except Antarctica, and they also inhabit many remote island groups including the Hawaiian islands. Their preferred habitats vary from species to species but include everything from arctic tundra to marshlands, deciduous and conifer forests, deserts and agricultural fields, and beaches.

Diet and Behavior

Owls swallow their prey—insects, small mammals and reptiles, and other birds—whole without biting or chewing. Most of the unfortunate animal is digested, but the parts that can't be broken down—such as bones, fur, and feathers—are regurgitated as a hard lump, called a "pellet," a few hours after the owl's meal. By examining these pellets, researchers can identify what a given owl has been eating and when. (Baby owls don't produce pellets since their parents feedthem soft,regurgitated food in the nest.)

Although other carnivorous birds, such as hawks and eagles, hunt during the day, most owls hunt at night. Their dark colors make them nearly invisible to their prey and their wings beat almost silently. These adaptations, combined with their enormous eyes, put owls among the most efficient night hunters on the planet.

As befitting birds that hunt and kill small prey, owls have some of the strongest talons in the avian kingdom, capable of seizing and grasping squirrels, rabbits, and other squirmy mammals. One of the largest owl species, the five-pound great horned owl,can curl its talons with a force of 300 pounds per square inch, roughly comparable to the strongest human bite. Some unusually large owls have talons comparable in size to those of much bigger eagles, which may explainwhy even desperately hungry eagles usually won't attack their smaller cousins.

(Video) What Do Owls Eat? Surprising Foods in the Owl's Diet

In popular culture,owls are invariably depicted as extremely intelligent, but it's virtually impossible to train an owl, while parrots, hawks, ​and pigeons can be taught to retrieve objects and memorize simple tasks.People think owls are smart for the same reason they think kids who wear glasses are smart: Bigger-than-usual eyes convey the impression of high intelligence. This doesn't mean owls are especially dumb, either; they need lotsof brain power to hunt at night.

Reproduction and Offspring

Owl mating rituals involve dual hooting, and once paired, a single male and female will remain together through the breeding season. Some species stay together for an entire year; others remain paired for life. They don't typically build their own nests, instead, they take over nests abandoned by other creatures. Owls can be aggressively territorial, especially during the breeding season.

Mother owls lay between one and 11 eggs over a few days period, with an average of five or six. Once laid, she does not leave the nest until the eggs hatch, some 24–32 days later, and, although the male feeds her, she does tend to lose weight over that period. The chicks hack themselves out of the egg with an egg-tooth and leave the nest (fledge) after 3–4 weeks.

No one is sure why, on average, female owls are slightly larger than males. One theory is that smaller males are more agile and therefore more suited to catching prey,​ while females brood young. Another is that becausefemales don't like to leave their eggs, they need a larger body mass to sustain them for long periods without eating. A third theory is less likely but more amusing: Since female owls often attack and drive off unsuitable males during mating season, the smaller size and greater agility of males preventthem from getting hurt.

(Video) Mysterious OWL FACTS You Can't Miss!

Owl Facts: Habitat, Behavior, Diet (2)

Evolutionary History

It's difficult to trace the evolutionary origins of owls, much less their apparent kinship with contemporarynightjars, falcons, and eagles. Owl-like birdssuch as Berruornis and Ogygoptynx lived 60 million years ago during the Paleocene epoch, which means it is possible that the ancestors of owls coexisted with dinosaurs toward the end of the Cretaceous period. The strigid family of owls broke off from tyronids and first appeared in the Miocene epoch (23–5 million years ago).

Owls are one of the most ancient terrestrial birds, rivaled only by the game birds (e.g., chickens, turkeys, and pheasants) of the order Galliformes.

(Video) Snowy Owls Build Nests Out Of Lemming Corpses

Conservation Status

Most of the species in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are listed as Least Concern, but a few are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered, such as the Forest Owlet (Heteroglaux blewitti) in India; the Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus) in North America, Asia, and Europe; and the Siau Scops-Owl (Otus siaoensis), on a single island in Indonesia. Ongoing threats to owls are hunters, climate change and habitat loss.

Owls and Humans

Itisn't a good idea to keep owls as pets, and not just because that's illegal in the U.S. and most other countries. Owls eat only fresh food, requiring a constant supply of mice, gerbils, rabbits, and other small mammals. Also, their beaks and talons are very sharp, so you'd also need a stock of bandages. If that weren't enough, an owl can live for more than 30 years, so you'd be donning your industrial-strength gloves and flinging gerbils into its cage for many years.

Ancient civilizations had widely divergent opinions about owls. The Greeks choseowls to represent Athena, the goddess of wisdom, but Romans were terrified of them, considering them bearers of ill omens. The Aztecs andMayans hated and feared owls as symbols of death and destruction, while many Indigenous groups scared their children with stories of owls waiting in the dark to carry them away. The ancient Egyptians had a kinder view of owls, believing that they protected the spirits of the dead as they traveled to the underworld.


  • Askew, Nick. "List of Owl Species." BirdLife International, June 24, 2009.
  • BirdLife International. "Micrathene " The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: e.T22689325A93226849, 2016.whitneyi.
  • BirdLife International. "Bubo ." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: e.T22689055A127837214, 2017.scandiacus (errata version published in 2018)
  • BirdLife International. "Heteroglaux ." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: e.T22689335A132251554, 2018.blewitti
  • BirdLife International. "Aegolius ." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: e.T22689362A93228127, 2016.funereus
  • BirdLife International. "Otus ." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: e.T22728599A134199532, 2018.siaoensis
  • Lynch, Wayne. "Owls of the United States and Canada: A Complete Guide to their Biology and Behavior." Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.


What is an owl diet and habitat? ›

The burrowing owl lives in old mammal burrows. Many owls nest in tree cavities. An owl's diet consists of rabbits, rodents, reptiles, insects, and even other birds. Large owls have been documented to eat skunks, opossums, and large ducks.

What are 4 facts of eating habits of owls? ›

Owls spend much of their waking time hunting for food. Many owl species are carnivores, or meat eaters. Small, rodent-like mammals, such as voles and mice, are the primary prey for many owl species. An owl's diet may also include frogs, lizards, snakes, fish, mice, rabbits, birds, squirrels, and other creatures.

What do owls eat diet? ›

Owls eat a variety of small animals, including mice, rats, frogs, birds, squirrels, snakes, fish, and lizards. They often swallow these prey whole.

What is the feeding behavior of owl? ›

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.

How are owls suited to their habitat? ›

The colors of an owl's feathers help it blend in with the natural environment and, of course, keep it warm. Snowy Owls have white feathers that help them hide in their snowy habitat. Flammulated Owls' have dark feathers that help camouflage it when tucked up against a tree.

What is the habitat of a great owl? ›

Most great gray owls nest in the dense northern boreal forests across North America and Eurasia. The southernmost edge of their range, however, dips down through the Cascades and Klamath Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, into the Sierra Nevada of California and includes the northern Rocky Mountains.

What do owls eat most? ›

The main food largely depends on the species of Owl. For example, Scops and Screech Owls feed on insects mostly, while Barn Owls eat mainly mice, shrews and voles. Larger Owls such as the Eagle Owl will prey upon hares, young foxes and birds up to the size of ducks and gamebirds.

What do owls eat and drink? ›

Most species of owls eat a mixture of small mammals, birds, frogs, and insects. The long-eared owls eats field voles, wood mice, bank voles, and birds. The screech owl eats insects, rodents, snails, slugs, amphibians, and fish.

Do owls swallow their food? ›

Owls swallow their prey whole or in large pieces, but they cannot digest fur, teeth, bones, or feathers. Like other birds, owls have two chambers in their stomachs. In the first chamber, the glandular stomach or proventriculus, all the digestible parts of an owl's meal are liquefied.

Do owls eat meat and plants? ›

Yes, owls are exclusively carnivores because they only eat meat. There are many different species of owls who live all over the world. These birds are sometimes known as birds of prey because they are specialized hunters.

What are the habits of owls? ›

Most Owls are active at dusk and dawn, spending the daytime at a quiet, inconspicuous roost. They can be found roosting singly or in pairs or family groups, but may form flocks outside of the breeding season (A group of Owls is called a parliament).

What food attracts owls? ›

Because owls eat mice, voles, gophers, and similar small rodents, birders who have mice nearby are more likely to attract owls. Leaving grass uncut, adding a brush pile, and leaving seed on the ground will make the yard more mouse-friendly, which in turn makes the habitat more owl-friendly.

Why do owls eat at night? ›

Why are owls only active at night? Owls are nocturnal animals, meaning that they prefer to be active at night when it is dark. This helps them avoid detection by other animals and allows them to more easily hunt for food.

What do owls most commonly eat? ›

Their diet includes invertebrates (such as insects, spiders, earthworms, snails and crabs), fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and small mammals. The main food largely depends on the species of Owl. For example, Scops and Screech Owls feed on insects mostly, while Barn Owls eat mainly mice, shrews and voles.

Do owls eat snakes? ›

Yes, owls do eat snakes. Snakes are not the main food in their diet, but they will eat one if they come across one. Owls are opportunistic eaters so they will eat what they can find. Owls living in different habitats will adapt to the food sources that are available.

Where do owls go during the day? ›

If you move quietly and scan patiently, you may be able to spot an owl on its daytime roost. Owls often roost in dense evergreens. They'll also perch close to the trunk in other kinds of trees, where they're easier to spot once autumn leaves fall.

Are owls omnivores or carnivores? ›

All owls are carnivorous birds of prey and live on diets of insects, small rodents and lagomorphs. Some owls are also specifically adapted to hunt fish.


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