What Do Owls Eat?

Written by Rebecca Bales
Updated: October 22, 2022
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What Do Owls Eat? The Owl Diet Explained

Key Points

  • Most species of owls eat a mixture of small mammals, birds, frogs, and insects.
  • The long-eared owls eats field voles, wood mice, bank voles, and birds.
  • The screech owl eats insects, rodents, snailsslugs, amphibians, and fish.

Owls are mysterious birds of the night. With their huge eyes and haunting hoot, they appear intelligent and menacing.

They are divided into two families, the true or typical owls, and the barn owls. What keeps these feathered creatures going every day? What do owls eat?

As a bird of prey, owls have a carnivorous diet. Read on to learn more about the diet of owls, what they eat, and how they hunt for prey at night in the desert and other habitats.

What Do Owls Eat?

The diet of an owl depends on its species. However, they are all carnivores.

The diet of an owl depends on its species, which varies due to the climate of its habitat and its geographic location. They all have carnivorous diets but what exactly they eat has to do with the food sources that are available in their environment. What do owls eat? Some owls eat carrion, but the general rule is that they eat prey that they kill themselves. They eat insects, small mammals, other birds, and some focus on fish.

For specific diets, Scops and Screech Owls eat mostly insects. The Screech Owl is divided into eastern and western species. The western screech owl also eats spiders, slugs, snails, amphibians, fish, birds, and rodents in addition to many more arthropods than its eastern relative. In Seattle, they have crayfish and giant carpenter ants as prey, while in Arizona, they prefer to hunt mammals.

Barn Owls eat mostly mice, voles, and shrews. Larger species, such as the Eagle Owl, will hunt young foxes, hares, and birds as big as ducks or gamebirds. Owls that live in the desert, such as the Great Horned Owl, hunt insects, and reptiles.

Owls have even been known to carry off small dogs and cats, which they drop from high in the air. The Striped Owl or Hoot Owl is one species that was observed carrying a cat. The Great Horned Owl has also been known to attack small dogs and cats.

How do owls find their food?

Owls hunt for their prey. Being nocturnal animals, owls are active during the night, with the exceptions of the northern hawk-owl and the burrowing owl, which are diurnal or active during the day.

Those that live in a desert habitat or another clear landscape hunt by flying and then grabbing their prey with their sharp talons and powerful feet, or directly snatch with their beaks, as in the case with insects.

When they capture a small animal, they carry it off to a tree and immediately begin piercing it and ripping its flesh with its hooked, sharp beak which delivers deadly crushing power. Owls otherwise hunt by chasing insects and small animals on the ground or capturing it after flying from their perch.

How do owls digest their food?

Owls cannot chew their food, like other birds. When they hunt for prey, they either swallow it whole or tear it into smaller pieces to swallow. Although they can swallow bones, teeth, fur, and feathers, that doesn’t mean they can digest them.

These undigestible things come out in their pellets, which they regurgitate from their mouths. Some owl species partially pluck feathered prey.

Once a prey is swallowed, the owl’s meal passes through the esophagus and comes to rest in a glandular stomach where acids help to break down the meal. Fleshy portions such as meat, fat, or organs are passed through another stomach for better digestion. The remains are then regurgitated.

What do Owls Eat?

Here is a complete list of owl species and what they eat:

Owl SpeciesList of Foods
Golden-masked owl:Insectsrodentsrabbits, and birds
Barn owl:Birds, fish, rodents, and other small mammals
Tawny owl:Insects, mice, voles
Snowy owlLemmings, voles, and fish
Barred owl:Insects and other invertebrates, fish, 
other birds, mice, rabbits, and other mammals
Long-eared owl:Reptiles, small birds, and rodents
Scops Owl:Small insects, small vertebrates, small mammals
Screech Owl:Insects, rodents, snailsslugs, amphibians, fish
Eagle Owl:Birds, hares, and foxes
Long-eared Owl: Field voles, wood mice, bank voles, birds
Little Owl:Earthworms, beetles, and other invertebrates,
small birds, and small mammals
Short-eared Owl:Field voles and other small mammals, birds
Great Horned Owl:Scorpionssnakes, and other reptiles

Owls are common birds of prey around the world, and their mysterious symbolism is the subject of many folktales and stories. We can only occasionally see them eat when we are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them during their hunt at night. All birds of prey are carnivores, but they don’t all have the same diet. Not even two owl species have the same diet, either.

Next Up…

  • Are Owls Dangerous? – Owls are known for their curved beaks and nighttime hooting, but can they hurt you? Keep reading to find out!
  • Owl Predators: What Eats Owls? – Owls are known for eating small mammals and snakes, but what eats owls? Click here to learn more!
  • Are Owls Raptors? – What group of birds do owls belong to? Are they raptors?

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/vanderje

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About the Author

Rebecca is an experienced Professional Freelancer with nearly a decade of expertise in writing SEO Content, Digital Illustrations, and Graphic Design. When not engrossed in her creative endeavors, Rebecca dedicates her time to cycling and filming her nature adventures. When not focused on her passion for creating and crafting optimized materials, she harbors a deep fascination and love for cats, jumping spiders, and pet rats.

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