How do Owls Sleep?

Written by Cindy Rasmussen
Published: May 18, 2022
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A photo of a sleeping owl that was circulating on social media brought up questions about how do owls sleep? The photo showed an owl lying on its stomach with its head to the side and legs sprawled out behind it. Turns out the photo is legitimate and it prompted others to share photos of tummy sleeping owls. The owls in the photos were baby owls, that do sleep laying down similar to humans. But do all baby owls sleep lying down? What about adult owls, how do they sleep? Let’s find out.

How do Baby Owls Sleep?

baby burrowing owls in burrow

These baby burrowing owls look like they are ready for bedtime. Owls are nocturnal so they sleep during the day.

©iStock.com/AGD Beukhof

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First, let’s start with the littlest owls, the baby owls. Researchers have found that baby owls sleep much like human babies in position and cycle. A study out of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the University of Lausanne, Switzerland found that baby owls sleep for a few hours, get up, feed, then go back to sleep, similar to how newborn babies operate. They also lie down on their stomachs, turn their head to the side and sleep in that position. Some will sleep on their sides. The heads of baby owls are heavy and the muscles in their necks are still developing so they lie down. Another research group studied the REM cycles of baby owls and found that just like human babies need lots of restful sleep for brain development, owl babies do too.

Why Don’t Baby Owls Fall From Trees When They Sleep?

Three young Ural owls sitting on a branch near their nest.

These Ural owls are getting close to being on their own. They have a unique claw at the back of their foot called a hallux, that keeps them locked in while they sleep.

©Lena Ostberg/Shutterstock.com

Photos of baby owls sleeping on a branch or in a tree make you wonder why they don’t roll over and fall out! There are cases where baby owls will fall out of their nest and end up at the bottom of a tree, but more often than not, baby owls have a unique claw on the back of their foot that latches on and doesn’t let go while they sleep. This is called the hallux. It can grasp onto branches and ledges to keep the baby owls safe. Baby owls are born blind and pretty helpless so the mother owl stays by the nest to help protect them. The father owl will hunt for prey and bring it to the mother to feed the babies.

How do Adult Owls Sleep?

This Tawny owl has found the best place to sleep. Tree hollows provide a safe shelter for sleeping owls.

©Rob from United Kingdom / CC BY 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons – License

Adult owls sleep standing up. Sometimes they may tilt their heads forward a bit or lean their heads back. They often find shelter in a hollow tree or crevice. Sometimes owls like Great horned owls, will find a spot high in a tree with lots of green cover to stay safe from predators and the added greenery creates a darker peaceful resting spot. They close their eyes and sleep for 10-12 hours.  

Do Owls Sleep in Nests?

No, the place where owls rest is called a roost. Owls use a nest during breeding season, that nest is where the eggs are laid and the babies are born, but they do not sleep in the nest. They sleep near the nesting site.

When do Owls Sleep?

Owls sleep during the day. They are nocturnal so they hunt at night. They sleep an average of 10-12 hours a day. They try to pick a roosting area that is away from disturbances and often high up in tree branches. The animals they hunt are typically nocturnal as well, like rodents, lizards and frogs. Owls have great night vision as well as excellent hearing that they use to search and find prey.

Snowy Owls are one of the only owls that sleeps during the night and is active during the day.

©Yoky / Creative Commons

One owl species sleeps at night. The snowy owl lives in the Arctic. In the summer, during what they call the Arctic summer or “Land of the Midnight Sun”, the sun does not cross over the horizon line so it is “daylight” 24 hours a day. Snowy owls adjust to this, as do the other animals including their prey, so they are on a level playing field.

Do They Sleep Together in Families or on Their Own?

Owls are solitary animals and spend most of their time alone. They usually sleep on their own unless they are caring for their young.

©Mbdortmund, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons – License

Owls are solitary animals, spending most of their time alone. During breeding season they will often live in pairs and work together to care for the baby owls. Babies when they are first born have limited movement so it is common for them to all sleep in the same spot. Some owls will huddle together during the winter to stay warm, especially a few of the smaller species.

Why Don’t Owls Get Eaten at Night?

Eastern,Screech,Owl,Resting,In,A,Safe,Spot,In,A

Eastern screech owl resting in a safe spot in a tree – camouflaged right into the bark!

©Karen Hogan/Shutterstock.com

Eagles hunt during the day and are predators of owls so if you have an owl sleeping in a tree during the day, why doesn’t an eagle swoop down and snatch it for lunch? They do…sometimes. Owls are near the top of their food chain, but they do have some predators. Eagles usually don’t mess with adult owls, and owls find locations to sleep that make it difficult for birds of prey to reach. Eagles will prey on owl eggs, juvenile owls or ones that are sick. Other predators of owls are hawks, fox, raccoon, and snakes. Sometimes snakes will climb up trees during the day while the adult owls are sleeping and steal the eggs right from the nest.

Do Owls Eat Other Birds That Are Sleeping?

Yes. Owls can eats hawks, falcons and eagles, but just like the eagles they will prey on the eggs or babies. So if an owl came across a nest of sleeping baby hawks they can grab one and take off with dinner in tow. In general, birds of prey prefer small mammals and rodents as the main source of food.

How Do Eagles Sleep?

baby eagle pair

These baby eagles just got up. They are diurnal, awake during the day and they sleep at night.

©iStock.com/predrag1

Eagles and other raptors like hawks will sleep on one foot, their claw securely wrapped around a branch. They sleep at night and will close their eyes and tuck their beak into their chest. Like owls they will sleep near the nest of their babies but not in the nest. Eagle will choose locations that are hidden or high in the trees as well to avoid predators. Baby eagles have not had their day on social media yet, but they can sleep laying down as well. Most photos depict them huddles together in a nest, laying down next to each other, but they can sleep just like baby owls. Makes for some cute pictures of these impressive birds of prey.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Kathryn Bedard/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

I'm a Wildlife Conservation Author and Journalist, raising awareness about conservation by teaching others about the amazing animals we share the planet with. I graduated from the University of Minnesota-Morris with a degree in Elementary Education and I am a former teacher. When I am not writing I love going to my kids' soccer games, watching movies, taking on DIY projects and running with our giant Labradoodle "Tango".

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