Habits of Owls

Feeding

Mice and rats are the main food of owls. The larger owls also eat larger animals, such as rabbits, skunks, and ducks. When rodents are scarce, owls catch smaller animals, including insects.

A hunting owl locates its prey primarily by sight during the day and by sound at night. It flies silently over the prey, brings its talons forward, and lands on the animal. After killing the prey, the owl lifts the catch to its mouth with a foot and then flies off to its eating spot, usually a tree. The stomach of an owl does not digest fur, feathers, and bones. These remains are rolled into oblong pellets which the owl coughs up a few hours after eating. The ground at the base of an owl's eating tree and the area around a nest are often littered with these pellets.

What Helps Owls Hunt at Night?

Owls are night-time hunters. Most owls have huge, staring eyes. They also have keen hearing. Their eyes and ears help them hunt at night.

In dim light, owls can see better than most other animals. The eyes of most owls have very large pupils. The pupil, or black part of the eye, is really an opening. An owl’s pupil can open almost to the width of the whole eye. Thus, the pupil can take in every bit of light there is.

Most birds have eyes at each side of their head. They see a different scene with each eye. But an owl’s eyes are at the front of its head. The owl sees the same scene with both eyes, just as a human does. An owl cannot move its eyes in their sockets, however. In order to see what is beside or behind it, the owl turns its whole head.

What Makes an Owl a Silent Hunter?

The night is dark. An owl hears exactly where a mouse is. It sees the mouse move in the grass. Suddenly the owl swoops silently down. It grabs the mouse with its talons.

How can the owl be so quiet? The soft, loose edges of the owl’s flight feathers muffle the sound of its wings. Thus, the owl can silently sneak up on its prey. The flapping sounds made by most other birds of prey would have scared the mouse away.

What Do Owls Eat?

The favorite foods of North American owls are insects and rodents. Rodents are small animals such as mice, rats, shrews, and voles. Most owls stay in one place all year long, so they have to eat what they can find in each season. Owls also eat worms, frogs, lizards, smaller birds, and even larger animals such as rabbits and weasels. Some kinds of owls catch and eat fish. Owls can kill animals as large as they are or even larger.

When an owl lands on its prey, the owl hits the prey with its feet. If the prey is still alive, it breaks the animal’s neck with a quick bite. Then it carries its prey up to a branch to eat.

What Are Owl Pellets?

When owls eat small prey, they usually swallow the animal whole. They tear larger prey into smaller pieces. However they eat, owls swallow many parts—bones, claws, fur, and feathers—that they cannot digest.

Juices in an owl’s intestine dissolve and digest the usable parts of prey—the meat. Bones, claws, and other indigestible parts are squeezed into a hard pellet, which is spit up. An owl may spit up one pellet in the evening, before it goes hunting. Then, at night’s end, the owl may spit up another pellet.

All birds of prey form pellets. People who study these birds take the pellets apart to learn what they eat.

Nesting

Most species of owls live in wooded areas. A few live in open country, such as farmland and tundra. Owls often keep the same mate for long periods of time. Poor nest builders, they usually make their homes in deserted nests, tree hollows, or crevices between rocks.

Owls lay from one to seven or more eggs, the number depending on the species and the food supply. The slightly elongated eggs are white, off-white, or buff-colored. The female lays one egg every two or three days and begins to sit on them soon after the first is laid. In four or five weeks the eggs start to hatch. By the time the young are three months old, they are able to fly.