Owls can be elusive creatures, so most of what scientists know about their diet has been learned by studying their pellets. This has led to some interesting discoveries. So, what do owls eat, exactly? Do they eat different foods at different times of day, or during different seasons? Keep reading! In this article, we’ll answer these questions and more.
What You'll Learn Today
What Does an Owl Eat?
There are many different owl species, and their diets are almost as diverse as they are. Owls eat a wide variety of things depending on their size, species, and what’s available to them. Also, their hunting abilities vary from species to species, although there are some common characteristics shared across all owls.
All owls are opportunistic carnivores, meaning they eat what they can get but need a steady supply of meat to survive. Regardless of their species or where they live, nearly all owls include a steady supply of rodents such as mice, rats, and voles in their diet.
Some of the common food groups owls will eat include:
- Insects and other invertebrates
- Mammals, especially rodents
- Reptiles and amphibians
- Other birds
- Fish and crayfish
According to the U.K.’s Woodland Trust, you can tell what an owl has been eating by studying its owl pellet. Owls can’t digest the bones and fur of its food, so they regurgitate it back up in the form of these pellets.
If you know what kind of owls live in your area, you can look at the bones and fur bits contained in any owl pellets you find to get an idea of what they’ve been eating. Keep in mind, though, to the untrained eye, it isn’t always easy to identify the bones or fur, so you may want to have a professional analyze the pellet for you.
What Do Owls Eat During the Day?
Most owls are nocturnal, but some are also diurnal–meaning they are active during the day. Even nocturnal owls may occasionally hunt during daylight hours, especially during times of food shortage.
Again, owls are opportunistic feeders, so they will generally take what they can get. The diet of daytime hunters isn’t significantly different from those who hunt at night, except that during the day they hunt creatures that are active during the day.
Some animals they may hunt during the day include squirrels, rabbits, ducks, songbirds, and frogs. Larger owls may even hunt unattended pets and small deer.
What Do Owls Eat at Night?
The majority of owls do most of their hunting at night, and they eat a wide variety of creatures. Some species tend toward a more restricted diet, such as the African fishing owl which prefers fish and amphibians, but even these will eat a larger variety of things if their preferred foods are unavailable.
Since they hunt at night, nocturnal owls primarily eat other nocturnal animals such as moths, crickets, scorpions, mice, voles, lizards, bats, and raccoons. Again, though, it depends on the species and what’s available.
Whether they eat at night or during the day, owls need to eat frequently, so they will typically take what they can find.
What Do Owls Eat During the Winter?
Winter can be a challenging time for many owls. Their usual prey animals may be harder to find during winter because of hibernation, songbirds may have migrated out of the area, and insects are either dead or hibernating.
Of course, owls living in cold tundra regions, such as the snowy owl, deal with these conditions all the time. Other owls, such as the gray owl, have ways of adapting to them.
The gray owl, for example, can find prey hiding under the snow by using its face like a satellite dish–face to the snow, funneling any sounds from beneath the surface to its highly sensitive ears. In this way, it is able to locate hiding or hibernating prey.
Many other eagle species eat fish on warmer days when ponds and streams are not frozen over. And of course, they will eat a variety of animals that venture out from hiding.
Again, owls take what they can get. They can only go for a few days without food, and they are not able to store up enough food for more than a few days, so a harsh winter filled with food shortages can pose a real threat for owls.
Sometimes, especially when food is scarce, they may eat snow to meet their most basic need for water.
Can Owls Eat Fruit?
Owls are carnivorous, so they can’t fully rely on plant matter to survive. Some types of owls won’t eat fruit or other plants at all, but others will on occasion, especially if food is scarce.
Some owl species, such as the desert-dwelling burrowing owl, will eat cactus fruits as part of their regular diet.
Do Owls Eat Dogs?
Great horned owls, which are exceptionally large and have a diverse diet, will sometimes hunt small dogs. In general though, dogs are too large for owls to hunt.
Owls are generally more likely to hunt small cats but may also hunt puppies if they are left unattended.
What Do You Feed Owls at Home?
If you have a captive owl, the types and amounts of food you feed it will depend somewhat on the species. Regardless of its species though, any type of owl will need a lot of meat–they can eat up to 30 percent of their own body weight in a day.
Some good foods to try feeding your owl include rats, mice, and chicks. These types of animals are common to most owls’ diets.
You can also feed them pieces of fresh chicken or beef meat, which they will rip into bite-sized pieces. This should not be given every day though, and in most cases, dead poultry chicks and mice are the best options.
It’s also important to feed the owl live prey at least a few times a week to help it get the proper nutrition; it will kill its food on its own before eating it.
How much to feed your owl depends on its species; here are a few examples, using information from the Barn Owl Trust:
- Barn owls, long-eared owls, and short-eared owls: 2 chicks or 4 mice per day
- Tawny owls: 3 chicks or 6 mice per day
- Little owl: 1 to 2 chicks or 2 to 3 mice per day
Again, it’s extremely important to find out how much, based on species, to feed your owl each day. Feeding too much or two little can cause health problems.
Owls eat many different types of food, from insects to fish to mammals to other birds. Some species prefer certain foods over others, but they are all opportunistic feeders that are not too picky as long as their nutritional needs are met.