They are an ancient group of birds, with fossils of some living varieties dating back over 20 million years. A species does not survive that long without being efficient at finding food – in this case prey – and owls are indeed exceptional hunters and top carnivores.
Owls’ appetite for rodents, in particular, has helped maintain a natural balance in the ecosystem, and in many cases it has made them friends to farmers. Here, we’re going to take a look at these incredible creatures, while delving into some facts about their predatory habits.
Previously, we’ve shown you adorable pictures of baby owls. Now it’s time to explore a rather less cute side to these birds – through photographs of them with freshly caught kills.
As it rises gracefully into the air, we can see how the barn owl pictured here got one of its nicknames: the ghost owl. Here, it does look almost ethereal, but for the hapless rodent gripped in its beak, this flying predator is of course all too real. The furry catch looks like it might be a field mouse, one of the barn owl’s staple foods along with other small creatures like frogs, bats and even baby rabbits.
This barn owl has snagged itself a chicken dinner, or a chick of some sort anyway. Barn owls like to seek out prey from perches like this tree stump, before flying down to snatch up the victim. As you can see, they (and many other species of owls) will quite happily eat other birds if they can get hold of them.
To catch a ringtail possum like this, it would take a pretty powerful owl. And, with a name that’s true to its nature, that’s exactly what this magnificent bird is: a powerful owl, the largest owl species in Australia! It’s not just small mammals that need to worry either; powerful owls are strong enough to pull another owl apart should the intruder foolishly fly into its territory. In fact, a large part of this owl’s diet is made up of other birds, as well as marsupials like sugar gliders and koalas. This is definitely one owl we wouldn’t want to tangle with.
Here, another barn owl flies off with its catch. The wingspan of a female barn owl is around 110 cm (43 in), while the males are slightly smaller, measuring 107 cm (42 in) across. Although they tend to be nocturnal, barn owls do also hunt at dawn and dusk and can sometimes be seen during the day. So, there aren’t many safe times for small rodents to be out and about if one of these birds of prey is in the area.
Sure, this little owl may be cute, but its beady stare lets you know it’s pretty tough as well. This northern pygmy owl has managed to hunt down an impressively sized rodent (in comparison to itself, anyway). Unlike many other owl species on this list, the pygmy owl prefers the ‘sit and wait’ approach to capturing prey. When hunting other birds, they crash into their prey, Angry Birds style, often while the unsuspecting victims are still sitting in shrubs.
Winging its way across the snow, prey firmly in its grasp, here's a Canadian northern hawk owl. These owls must like the cold, because they live mostly in the Northern Hemisphere – from Norway to Siberia, and from North China to Alaska. Northern hawk owls like to look down from a high point to spot their prey, but if there’s nothing suitable to perch on, they will hover in the air.
This barn owl is settling down to eat its tasty rodent meal. Barn owls are actually a valuable predator when it comes to rodent pests; a single owl can eat more than a thousand mice in a year! In fact, some organic farmers encourage owls and other birds of prey to live on their property for this very reason. Beyond this, their role in keeping down pest numbers is an important contribution to the ecosystem.
How cute is this little tropical screech owl? No doubt a lot cuter from our perspective than from the point of view of the animal (a bat?) on which it is snacking. Tropical screech owls are quite a mysterious species, with not a lot known about their diet, population, or even how long they live. What is known is that they live in South America, where they are found in a variety of different habitats, from woody zones to urban parks.
Gripping its prey tightly, this barn owl keeps a lookout from its lofty perch atop a metal pole. In 1935, barn owls were estimated to number more than 12,000 breeding pairs in Britain. These days, it’s thought that there may only be about 2,000 pairs left. Prolonged periods of snow, modern agricultural methods affecting their hunting areas, and traffic are all thought to have contributed to their drop in numbers. The World Owl Trust is campaigning for the restoration of the owl’s rough grassland habitat, which they say is the only way to save British barn owls in the long run.
This great horned owl has managed to catch another bird and is perhaps looking for a safe place to eat its dinner. These owls eat a variety of their feathered cousins, including woodpeckers, grouse, pigeons, hawks, turkeys, other owls and chickens – which they will even steal from coops! When eating their prey, great horned owls will often pluck the feathers off first, then swallow the bird whole if it is small enough, or else rip it into manageable pieces.
This northern hawk owl’s sideways glance seems to suggest that it is a little bashful about its prey. Maybe it’s just hoping we won’t notice it in that tree and will leave it alone to eat in peace! Hanging from the hawk owl’s beak is what may well be a vole, a favorite snack among this species. The small rodents are not safe day or night, as the northern hawk owl is prone to hunting at any time. Once it has its victim, this owl will generally eat it headfirst, then either consume the internal organs or swallow the rest of the animal whole.
No, this northern pygmy owl doesn’t have strangely angled legs! Those actually belong to its unfortunate prey, which by the look of it is roughly the same size as the pygmy owl itself. On average, female pygmy owls only reach around 18.5cm (7.3 in) long; males an even smaller 16.5cm (6.5 in). Their diminutive size, however, does not stop them from being ruthless predators, and with their sharp talons they are capable of carrying prey much larger than them. They’re also quite picky eaters and will oftentimes only eat the brains of their feathered victims.
Here’s a barn owl that would rather we didn't come too close to its dangling prey. A barn owl’s ears are not symmetrical, which helps them to accurately pinpoint the distance and position of their prey. In fact, their hearing is so good that they don’t even need to see to hunt – especially useful as most of their hunting is done either at night or in the dimly lit hours of dawn or twilight.
At first glance, the barred owl on the right in this picture seems to have a very strangely shaped nose, but look closer and you'll find that it’s just the owl’s prey gripped in its beak. Barred owls are native to North America and prey on a large variety of animals, including bats, rabbits, snakes, weasels, opossums and especially voles. A barred owl can live for up to 10 years in the wild – unless, that is, they have a run-in with their greatest predator, the great horned owl.
This northern hawk owl wants you to know that it has its eye on you! You’d better not try and get between it and its rodent lunch – not that you'd really want a rodent for lunch, of course! Hawk owls are said to resemble the bird species after which they were named, and this one definitely has that hawk-eyed stare down pat. Yet it’s not only their eyes that are keen; northern hawk owls also have exceptional hearing. A very efficient predator indeed!
In this bonus shot, a snow-white landscape is the scene of a life-and-death pursuit. The snowy owl swoops down with talons extended, ready to pluck up a scurrying rodent. Although we can’t see the result of this chase here, we’re betting the owl succeeded in catching its prey. A small animal like this would be a quick meal for the snowy owl, which will swallow its diminutive victim whole.
Whether large like the powerful owl or small like the pygmy owl, owls are truly magnificent birds of prey. Although they have few natural predators (other than each other), many of their species are endangered due to human activity. Fortunately, there are worldwide efforts being made to conserve them by organizations such as The Global Owl Project and the World Owl Trust.
Next time you're out for a nighttime stroll, why not try looking up? If you're lucky, you might see one of these beautiful creatures in your area!