Last month, I had planned to write a column about what baby owls eat, but another story came up and I put off that article until this month.
I was prompted to write on the somewhat unusual subject of the diet of baby owls by several things. For one, I have seen baby owls eat things that really surprised me.
Another is the questions people have asked me about owls and what they eat. Most of the knowledge I will share in this article is from my own observations.
Recently, I have taken up the hobby of photography and have been focusing my camera on owls. Photographing owls is difficult for many reasons, and often I wish I had some affliction other than an obsession for owl photography.
But it doesn’t interfere with my day job and it presents a variety of intriguing challenges. I have found it is easiest to photograph owls if I locate a nest, set up a blind and then photograph the parents as they feed the babies.
Some owls don’t mind my being there and will even take bait if I put it out. Once, while engaged in this very activity, using live mice for bait, a young girl and her friends came by.
Despite their sentiment that the mice were extremely yucky, they felt sorry for the mice and thought I should use something else. I asked the girl what she thought would work instead. She suggested celery or perhaps brussels sprouts.
Owls, however, are entirely dependent on animal matter for their nutrition. They will eat almost anything that has meat on it, including mammals, birds and reptiles, but they also will eat insects, fish and worms.
Some owls specialize in catching bats, and others seem to like frogs and crayfish. I am still waiting to see an owl show any interest in celery, however.
It should be remembered that owls, like all birds, have no teeth. Biting off and chewing celery won’t be near as easy as gulping down a mouse.
In the many hours I have sat somewhere in the dark watching owl nests, I have come to realize that I can expect the unexpected. I watched a baby owl little bigger than a robin swallow the whole back leg of a pheasant.
When the baby started, the leg was longer than the owl. It gulped and gulped, and swallowed and swallowed, and slowly, this long pheasant leg disappeared until nothing but the lower part of the leg and the foot were sticking out, like the handle of a sword in a sword swallower at the carnival.
The baby then flopped down on its belly, caught its breath, stood up and doggedly worked until the rest of the leg and foot disappeared inside of him.
Another time, I watched a baby owl swallow a whole baby duck head first. I also have seen parent owls bring back snakes, toads, woodpeckers and night crawlers to feed their young ones.
This spring, I watched a screech owl family feeding one evening. The parents parked all the babies in a line on a telephone wire next to a flowering tree. They would then fly back and forth, picking moths off the flowers and taking them to their babies on the wire.
Many owls are specialists and will always catch the same thing. This is what they feed their babies and this is what they teach their babies to catch.
For instance, short-eared owls, which nest in some of our native prairies, will catch almost exclusively small, mouse-sized rodents. Others, like the great horned owl, will catch and eat almost anything smaller than they are.
Thus, their babies are exposed to a very broad diet and will learn to catch almost anything that moves once they are on their own. I have seen baby owls that were fed on mice and rabbits by their parents start out eating grasshoppers when they were on their own because that is what they could find and grasshoppers were easy to catch.
Last year, I watched a young owl catching dung beetles, the beetles that break down cow pies. I am quite certain that is not what it learned from mom and dad.
So, what do baby owls eat? Well, in short, they start out eating whatever mom and dad feed them. That happens to be whatever mom and dad are good at catching.
Once they are on their own, they eat whatever they can catch on their own, which may or may not be what they were fed by mom and dad. But as near as I can tell from my observations thus far, all your garden vegetables, as well as your plums and strawberries, are safe from owls.
If you see an owl in your garden, it is likely after mice, frogs, bugs or worms and not your carrots, cucumbers or, heaven forbid, your brussels sprouts or celery.
(Allan Van Norman is a neurosurgeon, a Minnesota native, a veteran of the U.S. Army and has birded in more than 75 countries on six continents.)