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What Do Owls Eat? A Sneak Peek To The Diet Of Owls

What do owls eat?

Owls are powerful birds of prey. It only takes one look at their sharp claws and beak to know that these raptors are most definitely carnivorous.

However, since most owls hunt at night, it’s hard to know exactly what they catch and eat. At night, I sometimes see the silhouette of a Great Horned Owl perched in a tree or even on top of a house. I wonder what it catches and if the big bird could even be a danger to neighborhood cats!

What animals do owls eat in your neighborhood? Can they be a good form of natural pest control? See this article to learn all about the diets of owls!


The Diet Of Owls

Owls eat a wide variety of animals as well as insects. Their diet varies by species, but many owls prey on rodents and other small mammals. Barn Owls are especially good at catching rats and mice, and, despite its size, the huge Great Gray Owl mostly feeds on voles.

Related: What do birds eat?

Short-eared Owls and Long-eared Owls also eat a lot of rodents along with some birds. Small owl species like screech-owls, Boreal Owls, and Northern Saw-whet Owls also eat lots of mice, shrews, and other small rodents along with small birds.

Burrowing Owl carrying its next meal

Burrowing Owl carrying its next meal

However, two of the smallest owls, the sparrow-sized Elf Owl and the thrush-sized Flammulated Owl, mostly feed on insects. Elf Owls can also catch small lizards, scorpions, and other small desert creatures, but Flammulateds depend on beetles, moths, and other big bugs.

Another type of small owl, the Northern Pygmy-Owl, can eat some insects and lizards but is actually a fierce predator of birds! This tiny owl catches warblers, sparrows, and even thrushes!

However, the owls that eat the widest variety of animals are the big Great Horned Owl, eagle-owls, and the Snowy Owl. All of these species feed on everything from rodents and small birds to animals as large as rabbits, ducks, and even other owls.


How Do Owls Hunt?

Owls also hunt in different ways. Although all of them use their sharp talons to catch their prey, some hunt by flying over open fields, and others watch for prey from a perch.

Related: Do owls eat cats?

The Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl, and Long-eared Owl use their long wings to silently glide and flap over grasslands and weedy fields. When the owl sees or hears a rodent or other small animal, it quickly drops down to snatch its prey with its talons.

Great Gray Owl hunting

Great Gray Owl swooping down at its prey

Owls like screech-owls, the Barred Owl, and the Great Horned Owl usually pick a perch and then look and listen for prey. When they detect a mouse, squirrel, or other small animal, they swiftly glide in and catch it.

Northern Hawk Owls hunt in a similar fashion but usually perch on the very tip of a tree and often hunt during the day. Other owls that hunt by day include the Burrowing Owl, pygmy-owls, and the Snowy Owl.

Related: Are there any featherless owls?

Each of these tend to watch from a perch and then swoop down to catch their prey. Pygmy-owls usually hide in dense vegetation and carefully watch for an unwary bird. When they see their chance, they quickly fly in and kill the bird with their talons!


Interesting Facts About Owls And Their Diet

  • Owls use their “zygodactyl” feet to catch their prey. This means that they have two toes facing forward, and two toes facing backwards.
  • The Great Horned Owl can kill prey as big as a Raccoon! Its strong feet have a grip of 28 pounds and measure 8 inches across; around the same size as a person’s open hand.
  • No owl has been known to eat plant matter. All owl species have diets that consist of other animals.
  • Most owls swallow their prey whole. Exceptions include eagle-owls, Snowy Owls, and Great Horned Owls. When these big raptors catch a duck or other large prey item, they tear off pieces of meat with their sharp beak.
  • We can see what owls have been eating by picking apart owl pellets. These are compacted cylinders of feathers, hair, bones, and other bits of animals that the birds can’t digest.
  • Barn Owls have extremely sensitive hearing that helps them catch prey in complete darkness. Like several owls that hunt rodents in the dark, they have one ear higher on one side of their head than the other. This helps them pinpoint the exact location of prey, even on the darkest of nights.
  • When swooping down onto their prey, Great Horned Owls can fly as fast as 40 miles per hour.


Frequently Asked Questions

Do owls hunt at night?

Yes, most owls hunt at night. However, a few species also hunt during the day.

What do owls usually eat?

Owls usually eat rodents, squirrels, birds, and other small animals. However, some small species eat insects and some large species in Africa and Asia catch fish!

What do owls eat the most?

Owls mostly eat mice, rats, small birds, and other small animals.

Related: Can you have an owl as a pet?

Do owls eat other birds?

Yes, owls eat other birds. Many species catch thrushes and other small birds from time to time. Most owls also prey on smaller owl species!

How far do owls travel to hunt?

Most owls don’t travel far to hunt. Most species forage for prey within a few hundred yards from the center of their territory. However, in fall and winter, Snowy Owls routinely migrate hundreds of miles to feed on ptarmigans and other prey.


Read next: 15 Fun Facts About Owls

About the Author

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O'Donnell has been focused on all things avian since the age of 7. Since then, he has helped with ornithological field work in the USA and Peru, and has guided many birding tours, especially in Costa Rica. He develops birding apps for BirdingFieldGuides and loves to write about birds, especially in his adopted country of Costa Rica.

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