Owls are wide-eyed hooting birds, thought to be wise. There are small owls the size of a hamster like the elf owl and large owls as big as two feet tall like the great horned owls. It is pretty easy to tell the difference between an eagle and an owl, same with a hawk, but are they all raptors? Are they birds of prey? When you hear “raptors” and “birds of prey” are they the same thing? Are owls raptors? Let’s find out.
What are Owls?
Owls are nocturnal birds that have large eyes and a full set of feathers. You may not have seen one in the wild because they come out at night, but you may have heard their signature hooting. Owls hunt for their prey with long sharp talons at the end of their feet. They can swoop down and snatch a scurrying field mouse and carry it away for dinner. Owls have a reputation of being able to turn their head all the way around, but that is not quite true. They do have enormous flexibility in their necks and can quickly turn 270°.
Are Owls Raptors?
Owls are raptors. According to the National Audubon Society’s specialist Kenn Kaufmann, “We have long understood that owls are not related to hawks, but they’re usually considered to be raptors anyway because they have such clearly predatory lifestyles.” Looking at the requirements of raptors:
- Owls have a hooked beak: The beak of an owl is curved downward and very sharp at the end. It is use for tearing into prey and/or killing their prey. They can swallow their prey whole or tear it into smaller pieces. If they swallow it whole they can’t digest the fur and bones so these are regurgitated as owl pellets.
- Owls have strong feet: The largest owl, the great horned owl, has powerful feet muscles that can exert 200-500 psi (pounds per square inch). About the same as a bald eagle!
- Owls have sharp talons: Owls have four toes with three pointing forward and one in the rear facing backward. The talons on the Great horned owls are an impressive 2-3 inches long! Even the tiny Elf owl, that only gets to be 6 inches tall has talons (just small ones).
- Owls have keen eyesight: Owls may be wise but they would not be good at reading. They are very farsighted, which is helpful when tracking a tiny field mouse from hundreds of feet above.
- Owls have a carnivorous diet (meat eaters): Owls prey mostly on small rodents like mice, rats, voles and shrew, but they can eat lizards, frogs and snakes if they need to. Larger owls can eat larger prey like squirrels, rabbits, opossum and small birds.
What is the Most Common Owl?
The most common owl is the barn owl. They have a white heart-shaped face and white feathered chest. The feathers on their back and wings are multi-colored of shades of brown and grey with small spots. They are about the size of a crow, 12-16 inches tall and weigh 15-20 lbs. Barn owls are common all over the world except for the cooler regions at the poles and deserts. They don’t mind making man-made structures their homes so interactions with humans are common. You can find them nesting in barns, sheds, silos and have a reputation of living in church belfries or church steeples.
What is a Raptor?
First off, all raptors are birds. They have feathers, lay eggs, are warm-blooded and wings. Owls are birds, but are owls raptors? Let’s look at what makes a raptor a raptor! Here are the characteristics of raptors:
- Hooked beak
- Strong feet
- Sharp talons
- Keen eyesight
- Carnivorous diet (meat eaters)
Raptors also swoop down and snatch their prey. So birds like hawks, falcons and eagles fall into this category.
Are “Raptors” the Same as “Birds of Prey”?
Yes. These terms can be used interchangeably. Birds of prey mean that the animals actively hunt for their prey (like mice, voles, rats, and shrew). Geese, like the Canadian goose on the other hand, are primarily herbivores and you wouldn’t see a goose swoop down from a tree and grab a mouse with its webbed foot…not going to happen.
Are Owls Mammals?
No, owls are not mammals. Owls are birds. Comparing owls and mammals let’s look at what they have in common and what is different. Owls:
- are warm-blooded, like mammals.
- have lungs to breathe, like mammals.
- have a backbone (called vertebrates) like mammals.
- are covered in feathers while mammals are covered in fur.
- lay eggs while mammals give birth to live offspring.
- feed their babies meat like insects and small mice, while mammals nurse their offspring.
What Other Animals are Raptors?
Other raptors include hawks, falcons, eagles, buzzards, vultures, kites, harriers, goshawks, sparrowhawk, hawk-eagle, bazas, osprey and secretary birds.
What Raptor Looks Like an Owl but Isn’t?
You may be familiar with hawks falcons and eagles but what is a harrier? Northern harriers are a bird that looks like a mix of an owl and a hawk. They have an owl-like face with a curved beak and large eyes. Although they look like an owl they are hawks and have a long tail than most owls. They do rely on hearing, like owls, to assist in finding prey but they are more like hawks in every other way.
What Animal Looks Like an Owl but is Not an Owl and Not a Raptor?
The Frogmouth is a bird that can be found in Australia, Tasmania and southeast Asia. They look like owls but have a longer head and they are not raptors. They are most closely related to nightjars. Frogmouths have 15 species including Tawny Frogmouths, Large Frogmouth and Bornean Frogmouths (found in Borneo). So if you see an animal that looks like an owl in the United States, it probably is. Frogmouths do not live in North America. Now you know if you see an owl, you are also looking at a raptor since owls are raptors.
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