What Do Owls Eat? Puzzling Facts You Need To Understand

On reading about African grass owls, people wonder, what do owls eat?

Share this article

Do you know what is the diet of one of the wisest beings of the animal kingdom?

Owls are nocturnal birds of prey that thrive at night and can be found practically anywhere in the world except Antarctica. Many cultures consider this majestic bird as a guide that sees us through the afterlife.

Did you know there are 244 known species of owls and 22 of them call North America their home? Owls have an enormous head, excellent hearing, and very good vision. Did you know owls can rotate their necks at an angle of 270 degrees, 135 degrees on either side? They have three eyelids: one for blinking, one for sleeping, and one for keeping their eyes clean. Their feathers are aerodynamically adapted for silent flying. Interesting, right? In this article, we will see what these intelligent beings eat to keep up with their active lifestyle!

After reading about the diet of long-eared owls and screech owls, also check out facts about why do owls hoot and are owls nocturnal.

What do owls and eagles eat?

As owls are birds of prey, they are exclusively carnivorous. Several species of owls like to eat meat while some solely feed on insects. Owls are often considered to be opportunistic feeders which means that they will explore other options if their desired food is limited.

Eagles and owls have somewhat similar diets. Bald eagles are primarily fish-eating birds; they require open water to feed.

For meeting their food requirements, owls and eagles will occasionally feed on small mammals, amphibians, avians, and certain species of reptiles. Although these wise animals are known to eat meat they may occasionally eat fruit as well. The diet of an owl also depends on the species of the owl and where it lives. The owl's habitat determines the prey available to it. Small rodent-like mammals such as voles, lemmings, and mice are primary meals for most owl species.

Interestingly, like most other birds, owls do not have teeth to chew the food they hunt. Their sharp, hooked bills come in handy while they tear the flesh of prey into small pieces. Their bills are sharp enough to crush their prey’s skull and bones. They are capable of swallowing small prey whole, head-first. Body parts like bones and fur which are indigestible are regurgitated a few hours later in the form of a pellet. These are called owl pellets. An adult owl is so particular about its food that it will not lay eggs if it feels that there is not enough prey to feed the baby owl.

What do owls eat and drink?

Owls can drink water but their water needs are mostly fulfilled by animals they feed on. Owls consume other animals as food. Owls feed on a wide range of food.

They enjoy eating small insects such as moths, beetles, and large birds like an osprey. A small number of owl species such as the Ketupa (fish-owl) and the Scotopelia (fishing-owl), like to eat fish. These species of owls are found in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, respectively.

Owls don't need to drink water because their metabolism is such that the hydrogen that is present in their prey’s fat gets oxidized. The oxidized fat yields about an ounce of water for every ounce of fat in their body. At the time of northern winters, some owls do eat snow. Owls spend a considerable amount of their active time hunting for food. The snowy owl, for instance, may have to spend a while trying to catch lemmings. These owls manage to catch them three to five times a day. In the south, barn owls feed on cotton rats while they enjoy feeding on pocket gofers in their western habitats. Other preferred foods include house mice and Norwegian rats.

Burrowing owls like to eat grasshoppers, beetles, voles, and squirrels. Great horned owls don’t prefer fish but great horned owls occasionally find skunks tasty enough to eat. The great horned owl is best known for being the only animal that regularly likes eating skunks. The diet of great horned owls includes geese, crows, other raptors, amphibians, and reptiles, but mostly they prefer to eat small mammals, such as hares and rabbits.

Why do snowy owls eat lemmings?

Snowy owls are known for being patient hunters. When hunting, they perch and then wait to identify their prey before they soar off in pursuit. Their preferred meal is lemmings.

Their keen eyesight and great hearing help them find prey that is not visible under thick vegetation or snow cover. These owls use their sharp talons to deftly catch their prey.

Mature snowy owls eat a colossal number of lemmings throughout the year. In fact, an adult snowy owl can feed on more than 1,500 lemmings during an entire year. Snowy owls can easily kill prey as big as eiders, which is a type of large sea duck, so killing three to five lemmings a day surely isn’t an issue. These birds also feed on other animals like small mammals, avians, and fish. Snowy owls mainly consume mammals like hares and lemmings and birds like geese and songbirds. Snowy owls do sometimes feed on the decaying flesh of dead animals, like other raptors. It includes human flesh as well.

Snowy owls prefer to eat the meat they hunt and kill themselves. As per many studies, if snowy owls are able to access an adequate quantity of lemmings in their home, they tend to not migrate from their habitat near the Arctic tundra. A stunning photo made rounds on the internet showing a snowy owl’s net wreathed by 70 plus lemmings. The picture indicates the rich times this particular snowy owl had, when there were so many lemmings at his disposal that it couldn’t stop itself from killing more than it could possibly eat.

How do owls eat rabbits?

Owls’ sizes vary a lot, from smaller owls all the way up to the largest owl in the world, the eagle owl. Due to this, they have a wide-ranging diet. Rabbits make up a large part of the owl’s diet.

Almost all species of owls prey on rabbits because they are a good source of food. The great eyesight of owls enables them to spot even small rabbits from a long distance.

Smaller owls like the screech owl prey on small rabbits and baby rabbits. On the other hand, other owl species like barn owls, barred owls, northern hawk owls, and great horned owls prefer to prey on adult rabbits and larger rabbits. Owls generally hunt and catch rabbits while they are out in the open eating grass. Owls will perch on a branch and wait patiently for a good time to strike. The owl will silently swoop in and attack the unsuspecting rabbit with its powerful talons.

These talons are so strong that they can crush the rabbit’s skull and tear through it while feeding on it. Generally, owls consume their prey straight away unless they have to take the food back to their nest for baby owls. Because of its large size, the great horned owl is adept at carrying up to four times its body weight. This means they can essentially carry even the largest hares and rabbits. Owls don’t generally hunt domestic rabbits; wild rabbits are the main target of owls. As a precautionary measure, domestic rabbits should be kept in hutches or cages at night to not only protect them from the cold but also from predators.

Owls primarily feast on mice, voles, frogs, snakes, koi fish, rabbits, and weasels.

How do owls eat rats?

Rats have a habit of foraging for food late at night. This works in favor of owls as it is their time to hunt. Rats steer clear of owls, so much so that farmers use fake owls as scarecrows to keep them away from their produce. The fake owl also scares away other small animals like weasels and bats.

The barn owl (Tyto alba) is found on six continents and multiple islands. It has one of the biggest ranges of any terrestrial bird. For centuries, barn owls have been associated with such enterprises due to the high number of rodents attracted to livestock farms. It is no wonder they are named barn owls.

Owls have extremely soft feathers. These feathers enable them to fly without making any noise. After capturing the rat successfully the owl feeds on it and as it cannot digest bones, hair, or teeth the owl regurgitates them as pellets.

Barn owls eat a few species of small animals, from small insects such as moths or beetles to other birds, even as large as an osprey.

Captivity owls tend to be most active at night as they are nocturnal creatures. However, many species of owls are diurnal, meaning, they are active during the day and rest at night. Adult owls spend much of their time hunting for food. Their keen eyesight helps them look for prey even in dim light. Their hunting territory is usually away from where they roost during the daytime.

Owls hunt in various ways. One technique is called perch and pounce. In this method, the owl perches comfortably until it sees its prey and then glides down upon it. The north hawk owl uses this approach. Its noiseless flight enables it to track its prey and catch it unaware. Another technique owls use is called quartering flight. It is used to search for prey while flying and is used by the barn owl. Owls, like short-eared owls, often hunt in the open country. Like a helicopter, they hover over their prey before they are ready to make a move on it. The hovering uses a lot of the owl’s energy.

Burrowing owls usually run across the ground after the animal burrowing owls want to hunt. Some owl species prefer to hunt closer to the ground so they can hear and see their prey more easily. Sometimes owls use their bill to carefully stuff their hunt in a hiding spot. This is called caching. Owls do this when the hunting is good and they want to stock up on food. They usually go back to it within a day or two.

According to the Owl Research Institute, there are many owl species. Some adult owl species do better as captive owls than ones roaming around. There is the great gray owl. The great gray owl is documented as the world's largest species of owl by length. These great gray owls can be found in both the eastern and western hemispheres. You may also find the eastern screech owl in the eastern region. Eastern screech owls are a very large species.

The eastern screech owl eats mostly large insects and small rodents. There is the elf owl, the short-eared owls, and the long-eared owl. Elf owls nest in natural tree cavities and abandoned woodpecker holes. The short-eared owl is a widespread grassland species in the family Strigidae. There are African fishing owls,  Asian fish owls, and the Blakiston's fish owl that catch fish. There is the northern spotted owl also called a barred owl. These barred owls are informally called hoot owls. The barred owl is a North American large species of owl.

Even the diet of every owl differs. The great horned owl diet is made up of rats, mice, rabbits, ground squirrels, opossums, skunks, and many other animals. The barn owl diet is mostly voles. The snowy owl diet consists of lemmings and small species of rodents and this owl needs to eat a lot of these small animals for its survival.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for what do owls eat, then why not take a look at how do owls sleep or where do owls live.


Written By

Kidadl Team

The Kidadl Team is made up of people from different walks of life, from different families and backgrounds, each with unique experiences and nuggets of wisdom to share with you. From lino cutting to surfing to children’s mental health, their hobbies and interests range far and wide. They are passionate about turning your everyday moments into memories and bringing you inspiring ideas to have fun with your family.

Was this article helpful?

Get The Kidadl Newsletter
1,000's of inspirational ideas direct to your inbox for things to do with your kids.

By joining Kidadl you agree to Kidadl’s Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and consent to receiving marketing communications from Kidadl.