Owls can be tough to watch. You might hear an owl calling on a dark winter’s night or even get lucky enough to see the silhouette of one of these birds against the dim light of dusk. Have you ever wondered where and how these mysterious birds sleep?
Most owls are nocturnal hunters, which means they get most of their sleep during the day. Owls usually sleep in trees or rocky areas, but some species sleep on the ground, and one species even sleeps underground.
There are eighteen owl species in the United States, and each has its own unique sleeping behaviors.
It is not easy to find sleeping owls because they choose quiet, sheltered places where they can sleep in peace and safety. Most owls lead solitary lives, so you’re pretty unlikely to see more than one sleeping owl. There are always exceptions, of course, and many secrets to uncover when we study the behavior of these elusive birds.
In this article, we’ll unpack where, when, and how different owls sleep. Read along to learn everything you need to know!
A sleeping eastern screech owl
Adult owls usually sleep in an upright perched position. They are able to cling securely to their perch using their sharp talons and powerful feet.
Interestingly, young owls are known to sleep laying down as this allows them to rest their developing muscles. They can sleep laying down on a fairly flat surface like a nest, or by grasping onto a branch for safety.
Owls usually sleep with their eyes closed, and they often avoid opening their eyes completely during the day. This protects their sensitive eyes from strong light but also makes the bright colors of their eyes invisible to predators. Even while they are sleeping, owls remain alert and are ready to fly away at the first hint of danger.
Tawny Owl sleeping upright on a tree branch
Most owls are nocturnal birds, which means they sleep during the day. Many owls are more flexible with their bedtimes, however, and can be seen hunting in the early morning and late afternoon. You might be surprised to learn that some owls are even diurnal, and these species will sleep at night.
Continue reading for a breakdown of when American owls sleep.
Predominantly nocturnal owls:
Predominantly diurnal owls:
Some American owls can be seen hunting during the day or night, with different species having different peak activity periods. Birds that can be active at any time of day are known as cathemeral species.
You could find the following owl species sleeping at any time of the day or night:
Barred Owls can be found sleeping in both the day and night
Different owls choose different places to roost depending on their species and the type of habitat they are in. Owls usually choose a quiet, sheltered spot that is safe from predators. Songbirds will often harass owls if they find them during the day, so staying hidden away has other advantages too.
Small species like screech-owls will sleep in cavities or even birdhouses, but bigger owls like barred owls and great horned owls usually sleep in the canopy of trees. The burrowing owl is an interesting bird that sleeps underground in burrows dug by themselves or other animals.
Sometimes, lucky birdwatchers find sleeping owls by looking out for the remains of their prey, their feathers, and their droppings (whitewashing) below their roost site. Listening out for agitated parties of songbirds can also lead you to owls during the day. If you do find a sleeping owl, be kind and watch from a distance to avoid disturbing the resting bird.
Here are a few places where owls often sleep:
Barn Owl sleeping in the rafters
Most owls are active at night and do most of their sleeping during the day. Nocturnal owls have peak activity periods, however, so they probably get some rest between bouts of hunting.
Most owls are resident and territorial, so they can use the same roost site each night. Many owls are migratory, however, and they will need to find new roosts while they are on migration.
Migratory short-eared owls have been found to roost in the same locations every year, although it is not clear if the same individual birds are being seen.
A sleepy little northern saw-whet owl roosting in a cedar tree
Resident and territorial owl species like barred owls can use the same roost site all year long. Great horned owls are also resident, but they are unusual in that they nest in the winter. During this time, both parents will be found roosting in the vicinity of the nest site.
Baby owls sleep in the nest until they are old enough to leave. Owl nests often aren’t very impressive structures. In fact, many owls prefer to use cavities, the old nests of other birds, or even just lay their eggs on the ground.
Baby owls often leave the nest before they are fully ready to fly. They will remain in the area for several weeks while their parents continue to feed them. They can sleep together in the same tree or general area during this time.
Two newborn chicks of a long-eared owl sleeping in a nest
Baby owls often sleep lying down in a prone position. This comes as a great surprise to many people, and there are some great ‘viral’ pictures out there of sleeping baby owls.
Lying down is quite safe on a nest or in a nest box, but they will hold on tight when lying down on a tree branch. Young owls can perch upright, but keeping their heads up above the ground can be tiring.
Owls usually select sheltered positions where they can sleep without getting wet in the rain. Some species, like short-eared owls, roost on the ground in open grassland areas. These birds either sit it out or move to the canopy of nearby trees in wet conditions.
Snowy Owl having a sleep on top of a post
If you spot a group of owls sleeping near each other, they could be siblings that have recently left the nest. Most adult owls are solitary and territorial so they tend to sleep on their own. They will form pairs during the breeding season, however.
The burrowing owl is an interesting species that live in loose colonies. Breeding pairs of this terrestrial owl remain together throughout the year.
A parliament of owls is a pretty rare sight but migratory owls of the Asio genus are interesting exceptions. Short-eared owls, for example, are territorial in the summer but have been known to roost together in groups of up to 200 individuals in the winter. The secretive long-eared owl shows a similar behavior, occasionally roosting in groups of up to 100.
We can only theorize about why these two migratory owls sleep communally, but abundant prey resources and safety in numbers are likely reasons.
A pair of sleeping burrowing owls
Many owl species sleep on tree branches because they provide a safe place away from ground hunting predators. Leafy trees also provide owls with shelter from the sun and rain.
Amazingly, many birds have the ability to sleep with one eye open while keeping half of their brain awake! This is known as unihemispheric slow-wave sleep and it allows birds to stay alert to predators and even fly without crashing. Owls tend to sleep with both eyes closed, however.
Adult owls usually sleep in an upright position. Even though they may look fast asleep, roosting owls are very alert and always ready to take off from their perch.
Baby owls often sleep laying down on their belly. This is a more comfortable position for the young birds because they do not have to support the weight of their heads and bodies. They can firmly grasp a nearby branch for safety and turn their heads to the side to watch for danger while in this position.
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