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Whether you were one of the countless kids waiting for their letter to Hogwarts or just a fan of beautiful birds, owls have fascinated us in many ways over the years. How much do you really know about these winged hunters of the night? For example, how long do owls live?
In this article, we’ll learn how long owls usually live as well as some facts about what impacts their lifespan.
In the wild, owls live an average of 9-10 years. Some owls live as few as 4 years, however. Owls in captivity tend to live much longer.
Several factors influence how long an owl lives, not just whether they are wild or in captivity. We’ll look at a few of those factors next.
An owl’s diet is primarily made up of small rodents, like mice. They may also eat snakes, rabbits, birds, frogs, and lizards. Owls compete with other predators, including other birds of prey, for their food.
Inadequate food supply is a major threat to owls’ well-being and can lead to a shortened lifespan. The owls’ prey may be in short supply due to habitat loss, over-hunting by humans, or competition from other predators.
The environment owls inhabit, particularly, the level of contamination from substances like pesticides, plays a major role in how long they live. Owls are sensitive to many environmental toxins, to the point that they may serve as early indicators of a contaminated environment.
Agricultural pesticides have been shown to harm species like the burrowing owl. Many species of owls are at risk of unintentional poisoning from rat and mice bait. Rodent poison typically doesn’t kill the rats and mice right away but sickens and slowly kills them.
Like all predators, owls will go for the easy prey when they can and that includes sick and poisoned mice and rats. Rodent bait is so potent it can kill predators as well as prey.
Owls live in a variety of different habitats, including forests, deserts, and even suburban areas. Many of them nest in trees, while others use old animal burrows in the ground.
Habitat loss is one of the biggest threats to owls and can lead to premature death, as well as the decline of overall owl populations. Not only are both owls and their prey losing their wilderness homes, but they are coming into closer contact with human populations.
It’s illegal to hunt owls but they are still put at risk by illegal hunting. Power lines and cars, as well as domestic pets like cats, are all threats to owls as well.
The size of the owl species is one of the most common predictors of how long they will live. In general, larger owls live significantly longer than small owls. Smaller species, like the Elf Owl, may live for 3-5 years, while one of the largest owls, the Great Horned Owl, has an expected lifespan of about 10 years.
Smaller owls are more likely to fall victim to predators, including other birds of prey, in addition to dealing with the same threats as other owl species.
Sex doesn’t seem to play a major role in the lifespan of an owl. However, it’s interesting to note that most of the time, female owls are bigger than males, and a smaller size could work against them.
Like other human and animal species, owls can suffer genetic conditions that can shorten their lifespan. For example, inherited skeleton and limb deformities have been noted in several owl species, possibly linked to environmental contamination.
As owl populations decline, the genetic diversity present in species may decrease as well. Eventually, this could make the species less adaptable and healthy and lead to shortened lifespans.
Owls who live in captivity live significantly longer, sometimes even double, the lifespan of their wild cousins. In captivity, owls don’t have to worry about where their meals are coming from and are in no danger from predators–humans or animals. Unlike most wild owls, captive owls also have access to regular vet checkups and medical care.
Unless they suffer some accident, wild owls will probably never see a veterinarian. Wildlife veterinarians are not common due to the extra training involved but having one nearby can play a big role in keeping sick or injured owls alive.
Since regular medical checkups help catch serious problems early, captive owls have an advantage over wild owls. Some wild owls may get sporadic checkups if they are part of a research study or protected population, but most will not.
Owls generally only lay eggs once a year, with the amount laid varying by species. The eggs will incubate for around 30-37 days, again depending on the species.
After hatching, owl chicks will stay in their nest for several weeks, entirely dependent on their parents to bring food. Owl chicks are born blind and covered only in down. Their feathers develop while they are in the nest. Both male and female owls help feed the chicks while they’re in the nest.
During this stage, the young owls learn how to fly. The age when this occurs varies from 4-10 weeks depending on the species. During this stage, young owls are very vulnerable to predators. Their parents continue to care for and feed them during this stage.
After learning to fly, young owls remain in the care of their parents for a short time before taking off on their own. This may take a few weeks or a few months.
Adult owls will be on their own until the time comes to find a mate and start their own nest. Owls reach sexual maturity between 1-3 years, depending on their species.
The type, color, and condition of feathers is the major way that’s been studied to tell the age of an owl. Chicks can be aged by which of their adult feathers have developed. You can also look at the amount of white on the underside of some species.
Some owls might be tagged by scientists when they are young, allowing researchers to study them as they grow and keep track of their age at the same time. Owls hatched in captivity can be easily aged based simply on observation and record keeping.
Long considered symbols of wisdom, owls rely on instincts and yes, intelligence to survive in the wild. Wild owls face long odds and unfortunately often fall far short of their expected lifespan because of this. Many dangers that face owls are the result of human behavior. If you want to help the owls in your area live as long as possible, consider building an owl nesting box, avoiding the use of rodent poisons, and learning all you can about other methods to aid in the conservation of owl species.
Featured Image Credit: Piqsels
Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.
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