Considering how fast and agile birds are, I’ve sometimes wondered whether owls can actually catch birds for food.
Well it turns out that while the primary diet of owls is small mammals like mice and voles, owls do eat birds on a fairly regular basis.
Birds typically only account for about 10% of an owl’s diet. However considering that owls need to eat every day, this is still quite a few birds per owl every year.
An important thing to realize is owls hunt birds seasonally, tending to eat a lot more birds in spring, and almost no birds in winter. The reasons for this make a lot of sense when you understand the method owls use to hunt birds.
Different types of owls also tend towards particular size categories and types of birds to focus on while hunting. So let’s explore these in more depth.
What Types Of Birds Do Owls Eat?
It bears mentioning right at the start that a large percentage of birds eaten by owls are not adult birds, but rather nestlings and juveniles.
That said, there are some general rules about which birds are most likely to be eaten by owls according to size.
Owls generally come in 3 overall size categories ranging from the massive great horned owls to tiny pygmy owls.
These size categories are essential to determine which types of birds any given owl will be capable of hunting and eating.
Large owls like great horned owls & great gray owls are generally capable of eating the widest variety of birds, however, they tend to focus their efforts on the largest birds to make it worth their while.
Great horned owls are commonly reported eating a lot of ground birds and even smaller predators like hawks and other owls who sometimes compete for nest sites:
- Smaller owls
- Smaller hawks
Medium Sized Owls
Medium sized owls like barred owls are also capable of hunting large ground birds like chickens and pheasants, but are much more likely to hunt medium sized woodpeckers and songbirds.
- Gamebirds (Chickens, pheasants, grouse, quail)
- Other Owls & Hawks
Again, the important thing to notice here is the size category. It all depends on the size category & what is available locally.
Small Sized Owls
Small owls like pygmy owls also commonly hunt birds, but tend to focus on the smallest and most common songbirds like house sparrows & pine siskins.
When these birds are present on a landscape, they tend to gather in significant abundance. This may suggest that small owls look for high density songbird populations as an indicator of hunting opportunities.
How Do Owls Catch Birds?
Along with general diet surveys, understanding the major hunting strategies used by owls to catch birds will go a long way towards helping you predict and anticipate the most likely bird targets of owl hunting in your local area.
Owls are perch hunters, which means they sit quietly for long periods of time waiting for the right moment to silently pounce on their target.
If the prey gets away on the first pounce, owls are capable of doing a short chase, but their success rate goes down the longer this continues.
During the daytime, this method doesn’t work great on healthy adult birds. It does however work quite well at night and on non-adult birds.
One of the big advantages owls have for catching birds is their ability to see at night and pinpoint exact distances using the motion parallax of their visual sense.
This is compounded with the fact that many daytime birds have reduced vision in the dark, and are less capable of escaping or defending against attacks at night.
For this reason, a lot of bird hunting by owls happens at night.
Owls will snatch diurnal (daytime) birds out of their nightly roosts with extreme precision at a time when birds are less likely to escape.
Nestlings & Juveniles
Owls are also known to take advantage of the active nesting season by raiding bird nests and stealing nestlings.
Nestlings and juvenile birds are much easier for owls to catch than fully aware adults who understand bird language and know how to evade predation.
Owls would be considered opportunistic hunters of birds, which means they mainly hunt them when there’s a really obvious opportunity in front of them, like a nest, or a night-time roost.
For this reason, time of day and season are both significant to owl hunting.
There are certain times of year (spring) when owls do a lot of bird hunting, and other times of year (winter) when they eat almost no birds.
In most cases, you won’t see owls trying to chase down healthy adult birds in the middle of the day, but during the nights of nesting season there could be more significant efforts towards bird hunting.
How Birds Protect Themselves From Owls
During the daytime, adult birds are generally very well equipped to escape and defend themselves from owls. They rely on speed and having advanced awareness of where owls are located on the landscape.
It’s also very common for birds to mob, scold & make loud alarm calls when owls are present, like these two robins I filmed nesting in close proximity to the nest of a barred owl:
An interesting study was done looking at birds mobbing owls showing that birds are less likely to be hunted if they mob owls in this way.
I also covered owl mobbing as a protection strategy in my other article on why crows attack owls, so go check that out if you’d like to see a gang of crows mobbing an owl!