An encounter with an owl is an unforgettable experience. Whether it’s a ghostly barn owl drifting silently over the farmland landscape or the fleeting glance of a tawny owl from atop a fence post as you drive through the night.
These elegant creatures of dawn, dusk and darkness have long attracted our attention - but what do these birds of prey eat?
What do owls eat?
An owl’s diet can be very diverse, highlighting an ability to adapt to locally abundant food sources. Different owls hunt in different habitats including mature woodland, lowland farmland and upland moorland.
Small mammals, including mice, voles and shrews, are probably the most important component of most of our owl species diet throughout the year, but different food items form the staple for different owl species.
There are five species of owl which regularly occur in the UK.
These are the:
Snowy owls and eagle owls also occur but an encounter with these is much less likely.
Tawny owls are Britain’s most familiar due to their widespread distribution. They are associated with deciduous woodland and nest in tree cavities and old buildings.
In woodland, bank voles, wood mice and shrews are common in their diet. They do also feed in farmland, where field voles are often caught- and occasionally they eat small birds and invertebrates, such as large beetles. They generally hunt from a perch and ambush their prey.
Long-eared owls also inhabit woodlands, typically in dense conifer plantations where they use tree nests made of sticks. This species is the most nocturnal of British owls and hunts its prey by quartering, flying low over the ground looking for prey. This method is used often by owls that live in relatively clear landscapes such as rough grasslands and scrub in open habitat, close to woodland.
The field vole is common in their diet, but wood mice and bank voles are also eaten to a lesser degree. Birds are also taken, but more so during the winter.
Barn owls are a widespread species which inhabit a mixed farmland landscape with hedgerows and small woodland. The main prey for barn owls is the field vole, and to a lesser extent bank voles, shrews, mice, rats and small birds.
They can often be seen hunting at dusk and dawn, quartering along linear features such as hedgerows.
Little owls also occur in mixed farmland and make their cavity nests in dead trees, stone walls and old buildings.
As the name suggests, little owls are the smallest UK owl and their favoured prey is generally smaller than that of other owls.
They feed on small mammals, but invertebrates - including earthworms and beetles - are common in their diet. They can also take small birds, typically in the breeding season.
Short-eared owls nest on the ground in open habitats of upland moorland, grassland and occasionally young woodland edge. Again, small mammals are its principal prey with the field vole making up as much as 80% of its diet in Britain. Other small mammals and birds are also taken.
Famously, it is closely interlinked with its prey. In years with a high abundance of voles the population of short-eared owls increases, while the population shrinks in years with low prey availability.
How do we know what owls eat?
Owls are secretive, elusive creatures - so how do we know what they eat?
Our understanding of these birds has developed over the centuries with the help of scientists, raptor study groups and keen naturalists.
Prey remains are often found near owl nest or roost sites. Some species make use of a larder and hoard their favourite foods.
The other, most common study of diet is through analysis of pellets. Owl pellets are made up of the parts of the prey that owls can’t digest, such as fur, bones, teeth and feathers. Analysis of these pellets allows us to identify what the owl has been eating.
Owl calls and spotting owls
As the leaves fall off the trees and the winter frosts set in you'll be more likely to encounter with an owl, roosting in the woods, or out looking for dinner.
Discover your local woods today to see if you can spot an owl and listen carefully to the nocturnal winter soundscape. Can you hear the haunting and unmistakable 'toowit, toowoo' of the tawny owl?