An owl soaring silently through a darkened forest or perched motionless on a limb scouting for prey are images that come to mind for most people when we think about this bird. Because the species is so well known for nocturnal activities, you may be surprised to discover that owls are also active during the day.
Many owl species are indeed nocturnal, or active at night. However, it is not out of the ordinary for nocturnal owls to be active during daylight hours. A species may make this behavioral change for various reasons, but it generally has to do with food availability.
Some owls do not exhibit nocturnal behavior at all. A few species are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day. Others are crepuscular, or active at dawn and dusk.
In this article, we will look closely at what species are more likely to be active during the day and why nocturnal owls sometimes switch to daytime hunting. Read on to discover more fascinating facts about owls!
Species like the Northern Hawk-Owl are active primarily during the day
Any owl species can potentially be observed during the daytime without cause for concern. Some sightings would just be far rarer than others. For example, the widely-known great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) primarily keeps to its nocturnal schedule but may be seen at dawn or dusk.
Some owl species are primarily active during the day. These include the northern hawk-owl (Surnia ulula) and the northern pygmy-owl (Glaucidium californicum). Exactly why these two species evolved to be diurnal rather than nocturnal is not fully understood. However, the reason likely revolves around the owl’s preferred food sources.
The pygmy owl prefers hunting passerines, or songbirds, which are primarily active in the daytime. Similarly, the hawk-owl also hunts birds, as well as mammals and reptiles that are active during the day and evening.
The snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is another species that is often active during the day. They are not necessarily diurnal, though. Because snowy owls live in arctic habitats, they are adapted to seasons of 24-hour days and 24-hour nights.
These owls do not have a set AM or PM hunting schedule. They are active at all times of the day or night, regardless of whether it is light or dark. Like other species, the snowy owl adapts its hunting to when desired prey is most active.
Northern Pygmy Owl perched on a branch
Despite commonly held beliefs, all owls are not nocturnal. Many species, such as the barn owl (Tyto alba), spotted owl (Strix occidentalis), or flammulated owl (Psiloscops flammeolus) are almost exclusively active at night. However, all owl species do not strictly fall into one category.
There are diurnal owls that may occasionally exhibit crepuscular behavior, meaning they are active at dusk and dawn. Similarly, there are primarily nocturnal owls that are frequently active in the late evening or early morning, and perhaps throughout the day.
It is not abnormal for species such as the barred owl (Strix varia) or great horned to switch up their sleep schedules to hunt during the day. This can be especially common in winter when weather conditions at night are much harsher than daytime conditions.
It's not unusual to see Barred Owls during both the night and day
If an owl that is primarily nocturnal or crepuscular is out during the day, the most likely explanation has to do with food availability. Daytime owl sightings are not uncommon, particularly during winter. If the nights are cold or stormy, usual prey such as mice, voles, and other rodents are unlikely to be active. Therefore, an owl will switch up its feeding schedule.
Varying between daytime and nighttime hunting ensures that an owl has enough food resources to stay healthy and maintain its energy levels. If you see an owl during the day, it is no cause for alarm.
The bird is unlikely to be sick or injured and it is not a danger to anyone. Take this opportunity to observe this allusive bird’s fascinating behaviors.
Barn Owls are primarily active during dawn, dusk and into the night, however, when food is less abundant, they often hunt in the day
There is no shortage of owl legends or folklore. You may have even heard some yourself. These wonderful and often misunderstood creatures were historically associated with bad luck and even death. Stories that likely evolved because of many owl species’ nocturnal behaviors, curious ability to rotate their heads (270 degrees, not 360 as was commonly believed), and to fly silently through the night.
Knowing the owl’s unique abilities, it is easy to see why they may have ignited fear amongst some people. Seemingly abnormal behaviors such as daytime activity were likely viewed as a particularly bad omen.
On the contrary, though, owls are an incredibly important part of the habitats they reside in. They help maintain balance among rodents and other prey populations. It is vital for us to understand the roles owls play and to help protect them in their native environments.
Spotted owlet (Athene brama) rotating its head
It is normal to see an owl during the day. Some owl species are naturally diurnal, while others sometimes switch up their sleep schedules according to when prey is most active. This can lead to the occasional daytime owl sighting.
The hawk-owl is a northern resident, found throughout Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, and much of Eurasia. Occasionally this species is observed in northern Michigan and Wisconsin.
The northern pygmy owl is prevalent throughout the western mountain ranges of the U.S., including the Cascades in Washington and Oregon, the Sierras in California, and the Rockies. Its range also expands north into British Columbia and south throughout regions of Mexico.
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