Owls are majestic birds that are a major part of North American folklore, religion, and natural history.
These birds are known for their graceful flying, low-pitched calls to one another, and fierce hunting capabilities. Of course, they also symbolize wisdom and good luck.
But are they raptors? What makes a bird a raptor, anyway?
The short answer is this: owls ARE raptors. Let’s take a deep dive into some information about raptors (AKA: birds of prey) and the incredible, majestic owl!
What Is a Raptor?
You can use the terms “raptor” and “birds of prey” interchangeably. To qualify as a raptor, a bird must meet the following four criteria:
A hooked beak
A raptor has a different beak shape from any other bird. You will see that raptors have a sharp, curved tip that is used to rip apart their prey.
At the end of the raptor’s strong, powerful legs, they have large, muscular talons. They use these incredibly strong teeth to grab and then hold onto their wriggling prey, even as they fly through the air. Some raptors will literally crush their prey to death with their talons. Others will pierce the vital organs of their prey with those razor-sharp nails.
Raptors have large eyes in comparison to the size of their head. They have excellent depth perception and can spot tiny moving objects from far away. Nocturnal raptors like owls can see incredibly well at night, even in near-total darkness.
Owls are unique because their eyes are at the front of their head, instead of on the sides. This gives them a large area of vision.
Raptors consume meat. The type of meat that a raptor consumes will change from species to species, but all birds of prey consume meat. This could be in the form of other birds, small mammals, snakes, rodents, lizards, and so much more.
Types of Raptors in North America
There are many types of birds of prey in North America, including those that hunt during the day and those that hunt at night.
Each of the following birds is linked to its profile by the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.
- American kestrel
- Bald eagle
- Barn owl
- Barred owl
- Boreal owl
- Broad-winged hawk
- Burrowing owl
- Cooper’s hawk
- Eastern screech-owl
- Ferruginous hawk
- Golden eagle
- Great gray owl
- Great horned owl
- Long-eared owl
- Northern goshawk
- Northern harrier
- Northern hawk owl
- Northern saw-whet owl
- Peregrine falcon
- Prairie falcon
- Red-shouldered hawk
- Red-tailed hawk
- Rough-legged hawk
- Sharp-shinned hawk
- Short-eared owl
- Snowy owl
- Swainson’s hawk
- Turkey vulture
Notice that there are 12 types of owls on that list!
Why Is an Owl a Raptor?
An owl is a raptor because it meets all of these requirements: hooked beak, sharp talons, excellent vision, and a carnivorous diet.
There are differences between owls and other birds or prey, but all of them meet these basic requirements.
What Do All North American Owls Have in Common?
In addition to meeting the requirements of being a bird of prey, owls have shared traits between themselves.
There are over 200 species of owls around the world. For the most part, they prefer solitude over being in a community. One of the exceptions to this rule is the Burrowing Owl, which lives in abandoned underground tunnels with up to 100 other Burrowing Owls!
Owls are nocturnal, and they perch upright on their roosts. You can contrast this with other birds of prey that lean forward as they wait for their prey to come by.
Owls have large, broad heads and incredibly good vision. They have binaural hearing, which is the ability to hear from two ears. This is a trait that owls share with humans!
Their feathers allow them to fly silently through the air, which contributes to their incredible ability to hunt so effectively.
How To Spot an Owl
If you want to spot an owl, you are going to have to become a nighttime birder.
Owls are rarely visible during the daytime, and they are nearly silent. The one time that I saw one during the day, I was walking in the woods near dusk, and I heard the whoosh of a large raptor flying near me.
As it disappeared into the cover of the trees, I was able to see just enough to know that it was a Great Horned owl – likely the same one I sometimes heard in my yard, very late at night.
You will need patience, time, and strong attentiveness to see owls in the trees.
To know if you are on the right track, listen for owl calls and watch for owl pellets!
What Do Owls Sound Like?
There are many kinds of owls, and they all sound different from one another. An Eastern Screech owl sounds nothing like a Burrowing owl, and a Great Horned owl sounds nothing like a Barn owl.
We recently put together a guide for identifying a variety of owls (and non-owls!) by their distinctive sounds.
If you are reading this from North America, you’ll find that not all of the owls in this guide are present on the continent. However, world travelers and those who live outside of North America may have the opportunity to listen out for the many global owls on our list!
What Are Owl Pellets?
Owls eat their prey nearly whole. Their diet typically includes many different kinds of small animals, including rodents, frogs, reptiles, and other birds.
When they catch and consume their prey, they really don’t stop to tear it apart. They just swallow it down and begin to digest it.
Before the creature makes it to the owl’s stomach, the gizzard performs a very important task: sorting soft tissues that can be digested from hard, sharp, and hazardous bones, teeth, and fur.
These unsafe, indigestible parts of the meal are bound up in a brown, oval mass that the owl will regurgitate.
The safe parts of the prey are digested, and the unsafe parts are rejected.
That ugly, oval, brown mass is also called an owl pellet. If you find owl pellets at the base of a tree, you have likely found the nesting spot (or at the very least, the hunting spot) of an owl!
Because owls swallow their prey whole, these pellets often contain the full skeletal remains of their prey. A fun (but kind of gross) science project is to dissect these pellets and see what you find!
Many elementary school classrooms feature an owl pellet dissection project, in which kids cut into the pellets, remove the bones, and attempt to reconstruct the skeleton of whatever unfortunate feature got consumed by the owl.
What a great, hands-on way to learn about dissection, ecology, anatomy, and even the food chain!
Looking for Owls in Your Neighborhood
I have one other piece of advice if you want to find owls in your neighborhood! I encourage you to put the Merlin app to use!
The Merlin app is a free, mobile app that helps users identify birds by sight and sound. It is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and I can’t get enough of it!
One of my favorite ways to use the Merlin app is to identify birds by sound.
More than once, I have been outside in my hard in the middle of the night, and I hear a lonesome owl cooing. With a simple push of a button and a very short wait of a few seconds, I can learn exactly what kind of bird I’m hearing!
Good luck looking for owls in your own neighborhood! These creatures deserve our respect, especially because they have been around for so long.
Owls are known for being wise, in part because they are so calm and unbothered by the world around them. It’s something we all could learn to emulate!