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Are Owls Omnivores, Herbivores or Carnivores?

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long eared owl in forest

Owls are carnivores. But although they are nocturnal raptor birds, they are not known for their great predatory skills. This is why they prefer to chase smaller animals, as they have difficulty catching and killing larger prey. They do, however, have a wide variety of food choices, but prefer:

  • Amphibians
  • Reptiles
  • Insects
  • Rodents

However, owls themselves are sometimes devoured by other raptor birds, such as eagles. Also, snakes can sneak into their nests and munch on their eggs and young. Find out what you need to know about the diet of these fascinating birds and how they hunt their prey!

Owls Overview

Owls are birds of prey, also known as raptors, which also include buzzards, eagles, and hawks. A raptor is a bird with a sharp beak and talons, which it uses to catch and eat its food. But, unlike other raptors, owls are, for the most part, nocturnal and hunt at night, while other raptors sleep.

bart-owl_alexas_fotos_pixabay-4279181

Image Credit: Alexas_fotos, Pixabay

What Is An Owl’s Standard Diet?

Owls prefer mice and rats because they are easy to catch – they just have to grab them by the tail. They are also very fond of hares and rabbits, but these are more difficult to capture due to their speed and the fact that they escape with great skill. In winter, when mice bury themselves below the surface of the earth, the owl has a much harder time finding them. An owl’s diet may also include frogs, lizards, snakes, fish, rabbits, birds, squirrels, and other little creatures.

Also, an interesting fact about owls is that these birds consume only living prey. If they find a dead or decaying animal, they will continue on their way as they have a highly developed predatory instinct and most of the time the hunt satisfies them more than the tasting of the animal itself.

Do All Owl Species Eat the Same Thing?

The owl’s foods vary a lot depending on the species, of which there are about 250, living on every continent except Antarctica

The eagle-owl (Bubo bubo), for example, is a great hunter and has no problem choosing what to eat. Other species of owls less skilled at hunting do not have this facility and are quite conformist. This is the case with the tiny elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi), for which beetles and moths are the main food, due to its mini size. Other owls, like the flammulated owl (Psiloscops flammeolus), also eat insects almost exclusively.

Moreover, the buffy fish-owl (Ketupa ketupu) specializes in hunting and catching fish, which are its main food. A few other species also eat mostly fish, such as the vermiculated fishing owl (Scotopelia bouvieri), found in Sub-Saharan Africa.

How Do Owls Feed?

owl eating small bird

Image Credit: Alexas_fotos, Pixabay

Owls (like other birds) have beaks and no teeth, which prevent them from chewing their food. They tear off pieces of their large prey and swallow their small prey whole.

As they swallow a lot of the prey whole, they end up swallowing a lot of fur, feathers, claws, and bones. But since these things cannot be digested, owls have two stomachs:

  • Glandular stomach This one is similar to a human stomach. It produces stomach acids and various enzymes, which help digest soft tissue, such as skin, muscle, and fat.
  • Gizzard – The second stomach does not produce acids or enzymes and does not digest food. It acts as a filter to collect all the things that cannot be digested (like fur and bones). The gizzard is a bit like a very muscular stomach; it squeezes all the fur, bones, teeth, feathers, and claws into a ball. It’s like a trash compactor!

A few hours after eating, the owl vomits a small packet, called a pellet: it’s a bit like a ball of hair that a cat might regurgitate. So, if you find an owl pellet while hiking in the forest, you will discover all the animal bones that the owl ate!

In fact, ornithologists and other scientists take the regurgitation pellets and dissect them to see what’s inside. It might sound gross, but it’s a fascinating way to learn more about an owl’s diet! It is also a very accurate way of counting the number of prey the bird has eaten.

Indeed, pellets are important for scientific study because they give researchers a picture of what the owl eats, when, and in what frequency. It would be too difficult to follow the animal around and watch it eat, especially at night when most owls feed. This means scientists have to examine things that may look a bit nasty, like pellets.

What Makes Owls Good Hunters?

Owls have a few physiological adaptations that allow them to hunt their prey.

1. Exceptional Night Vision

owl in snowy forest

Image Credit: Georg Wietschorke, Pixabay

On the one hand, owls have exceptional night vision:

  • They have large cylindrical eyes – While humans have round eyes shaped like a cornflower, owl eyeballs have a cylindrical shape, like a grape. However, this cylindrical shape prevents the eyeball from rolling in the eye socket. Indeed, since their eyeball is in a fixed position, it means that the owls cannot look around without moving their head.
  • They have 270° vision – To compensate for the fact that their eyeballs are fixed, owls have twice as many vertebrae as humans in their necks, allowing them to turn their heads 270° in both directions.
  • They have more rods in their retina – The retina of all vertebrates’ eyes has photoreceptor cells called rods and cones. Rods are used for night vision, while cones are used to distinguish colors. The huge eyes of owls have more rods than those of other animals, which allows them to have impressive night vision.
  • Interesting fact: If you look under a microscope at the retina of a diurnal animal that hunts during the day, or even a human, you will find that their eyes have more cones, which help detect colors.

2. Terrific Hearing

white-owl on fence post

Image Credit: Alexas_fotos, Pixabay

With such large eyes and such exceptional vision, one would think that owls use their eyes for hunting. But surprisingly, owls mainly use sounds to hunt. And contrary to what you might think, the slightly disheveled hairs on their heads aren’t really ears. These are just bands of feathers, called tufts, that indicate the mood of an owl, much like a cat that swings its tail or ears.

The owl’s ears are actually located behind the tufts. They are positioned asymmetrically, which means that the sounds reach the owl’s ears at different times. This helps it to find exactly where a sound is coming from. Indeed, as the owl gets closer to its prey, it adjusts its head to find the exact spot where the sound reaches both ears at the same time.

  • Interesting fact: The Snowy owl can even hear voles and mice running under the snow in the winter and swooping down towards the noise, capturing prey through the snow. This leaves a distinctive and beautiful imprint of the owl’s wings, which can sometimes resemble a snow angel.

3. Silent Flight

siberian-owl-in-flight

Image Credit: ElvisCZ, Pixabay

Most birds make some sort of flapping or rustling sound when in flight due to the way the air moves over their wings and bodies. But owls have unique adaptations that allow them to fly silently:

  • They have a comb-like leading edge on the primary wings that cut the air into micro-turbulences that roll to the end of the wing.
  • They have little fluffy feathers on their legs and feet. These down feathers help cut off the sound of the wind even more.
  • The shape of the wings also gives them a better lift, which allows them to reduce the number of flaps required.

All these characteristics make the silent flight of owls a formidable weapon against small prey strolling quietly on dry land.

Related Read: Can Birds Eat Grapes? What You Need to Know!

Final Thoughts

Owls are carnivorous birds that have unique adaptations that make them perfect for hunting small prey. Their most common prey animals are small rodents like mice and voles, which is very useful for farmers who often see their plantations ravaged by these hungry little pests! Finally, most owls are also able to capture larger prey, such as rabbits, squirrels, and even skunks, although they are not their preferred prey.


Featured Image Credit:  Kevinsphotos, Pixabay

About the Author Genevieve Dugal

Genevieve is a biologist and science writer and has a deep love for capuchin monkeys, pumas, and kangaroos, which has taken her around the world to work and volunteer for several wildlife rehabilitation centers. A Canadian expat, Genevieve now lives in Argentina, where she wakes up every morning to horses and cows saying hello from the vast plain next to her home office window. Having the privilege of sharing her knowledge and passion for animals of all kinds is what makes her fulfilled and happy.

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