Owls are among the most fascinating and mysterious of the world’s birds. Most owl species hunt under the cover of darkness, so few of us know just what they prey on. When we think of what owls eat, the first prey that comes to mind are rats and mice, but many birdwatchers may be surprised to learn that owls regularly feed on other birds.
Most American owls will feed on other birds when possible. In fact, birds form an important component of the diet of some owl species like great horned owls and screech-owls. For others, birds are taken less often. Owls hunt other birds in a number of ways, although roosting birds and those incubating eggs or brooding chicks are most vulnerable.
Owls have a number of adaptations that make them effective hunters of other birds. Their ability to fly in complete silence and their superior night vision and hearing allow owls to detect, and attack other birds with ease. Once their prey is caught, the sharp talons and bills of owls allow them to kill their prey very efficiently.
Read on to learn more about why and how owls eat other birds.
Most species of common owls will feed on birds when the opportunity arises
Owls are carnivores, which means they hunt and eat other animals. The type of prey they feed on varies depending on the species of owl and its size. Some owls specialize on certain prey items while others will hunt any prey item that they can catch and overpower.
Owls eat a large variety of bird species that range in size from small finches all the way up to large birds like geese and even other owls. Unfortunately, large owls will also feed on domestic fowl like chickens from time to time, although this is not their typical prey.
Let's take a quick look at four well-known examples of North American owls and the types of birds they feed on:
The great horned owl is one of the largest owl species in America. It is a powerful and opportunistic hunter that feeds on a huge variety of different prey items. Mammals are the most important food source for these birds across most of their range, although in some areas birds account for up to 100% of their diet.
The following bird species have been recorded in the great horned owl diet:
Birds can sometimes make up the full diet of Great Horned Owls
The barn owl is a medium-sized owl that can be common in rural farming areas. These birds have a smaller range of prey than the great horned owl but nevertheless feed on a variety of smaller animals including birds. These are their most commonly hunted bird species:
A barn owl in flight on the hunt for prey
The eastern screech-owl is a small American owl that feeds on a variety of other animals. These owls can take surprisingly large prey and have even been known to feed on other members of their own species!
Eastern screech owls have been recorded to feed on at least 83 bird species, including the following:
Close up of a perched Eastern Screech Owl
The snowy owl is another opportunistic species that frequently feeds on other birds. These large owls tend to focus on mammals like voles and lemmings during the breeding season, but birds become important during the winter.
The snowy owl diet includes a variety of other birds such as the following species:
Perched Snowy Owl
Almost all of the North American owl species are known to feed on other birds with varying regularity. Owls are opportunistic hunters so it is pretty likely that any owl species will take another bird if the opportunity presents itself.
The following North American owls have been known to feed on other birds:
Short-eared Owl in flight, on the hunt for food
Owls are carnivorous birds, which means they need to feed on other animals in order to survive. Most owls are opportunistic hunters that will hunt the easiest available prey, although some species are more specialized in their diet.
Although birds aren’t the most important food source for most owls, they will be hunted when possible. Most birds are diurnal, making them vulnerable to expert nocturnal hunters like owls.
Other birds provide a protein-rich food source that is relatively safe for owls to feed on. Most bird species are more or less defenseless against owls, with the exception of birds of prey or very large birds. This makes them easy prey compared with other animals like mammals and reptiles that can bite, or insects, frogs, and snakes that can be poisonous or venomous.
Long-eared Owl perched high up on the branch of a tree
It is difficult to watch owls hunt other birds by virtue of their nocturnal hunting habits. Fortunately, ornithologists have discovered a lot about what owls eat by dissecting the pellets they regurgitate.
These pellets (the owl version of a fur-ball!) contain the indigestible parts of an owl's diet, like fur, feathers, bones, and bills.
Owls hunt other birds in many ways. Sleeping birds that roost out in the open are most vulnerable, and birds incubating eggs on nests are also taken. Owls will also take young birds out of their nests. Other nocturnal birds like owls can also be hunted at night. Some owls, like the snowy owl, hunt actively during daylight hours, and this species has even been known to chase down birds in flight.
Owls have incredible hearing, but it is probably their amazing power of sight that is most useful when hunting other birds. Along with these keen senses, owls have specially modified flight feathers that allow them to swoop in silently so that their prey is caught completely by surprise. Their prey can then be killed with their razor-sharp talons and bill.
Snowy owls are known to sometimes chase down birds
Owls eat both baby and adult birds. Great horned owls, for example, often feed on the hatchlings of other large birds like crows, ravens, ospreys, and hawks.
In fact, great horned owls are the most important predator of red-tailed hawk chicks in some areas. The nests of smaller songbird species are also at risk from small owl species like screech-owls.
Owls regularly feed on other birds, but sometimes the hunter can become the hunted! Many diurnal birds of prey will hunt owls when possible, and some owls regularly prey on other owl species. Cannibalism has even been recorded in the case of the Eastern screech-owl.
Let’s take a look at some of the types of birds that regularly feed on owls:
There has been recordings of cannibalism from Eastern Screech Owls
Owls do not often feed on birds' eggs, although they will certainly hunt for birds that are incubating their eggs on the nest. Owls will also feed on hatchling birds.
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