Do Owls Hibernate?


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As the colder months roll around, it’s only reasonable to assume that most animals hibernate or migrate to beat the chill. Interestingly, many of us are likely to spot owls of various species flying around in the freeze. With that in mind, do owls hibernate at all?

Most owls don’t hibernate – they’ve evolved to beat the cold with thick feather coats. What’s more, their fantastic hunting habits don’t slow down in winter, when there’s likely to be lots of prey around.

Why don’t owls choose to hibernate?

Owls generally don’t hibernate as they’ve largely evolved to insulate themselves, and they have many hunting opportunities to themselves over winter. They have fantastic eyesight and hearing that allow these birds to spot hidden prey that may be covered by snow or frost or that may be hibernating itself.

Owls may choose to breed during winter as well, which is another reason owls don’t choose to hibernate. Some owl species lay eggs in January after finding a nest, leading their chicks to hatch before the spring. This also explains why you may hear owls hooting a lot during winter – they’re mating or calling to attract partners.

Hibernation is normally relied upon when animals’ food and other resources are scarce during the winter. As owls are extremely adaptive and have lots of feeding opportunities between December and February, there’s simply no reason for them to sleep this season out.

Do owls migrate instead of hibernating?

Most owls will choose to hibernate instead of migrating – but some species, such as snowy owls, may choose to visit new areas to find new food sources. It’s unlikely that an owl will ever migrate due to winter conditions. Rather, an owl will travel short distances or move location if hunting competition gets too fierce, and/or prey availability lessens.

Owls will rarely run short of wild food. Owls prey on rabbits, squirrels, rats, mice, voles, and more – all of which propagate wildly across North America. You’ll find owls across the globe, even in Antarctica, as they’re apex predators that have adapted to feast on a whole host of smaller creatures.

Owls have adapted to hunt around areas where prey is particularly easy to find, such as woodland areas and farm property. Barn owls commonly nest in barns and farm buildings to hunt rodents and vermin that come in out of the cold.

Some owl species, like the barn owl in particular, may find it difficult to persist through winter, depending on temperature and rainfall. While barn owls have many species of prey to choose from, the colder and wetter the winter, the scarcer the pickings will be. Barn owls are at a higher risk than some other owl species during winter as they don’t have the thickest of coats – unlike snowy owls that have adapted to arctic temperatures.

Snowy owls are curious because they tend to travel further than most owl species, with some choosing to move up north from Canada to the arctic when they wish to breed.

While owls don’t migrate per se, we’re noticing interesting behavior trends that reflect global warming. Some owls (and many other bird species averse to migration) may choose to ‘irrupt’. Irruption is the process of species starting to move gradually to warmer climates or more fruitful areas for prey. 

As the planet continues to warm up, more and more of the behaviors of predators and prey will change. This evolutionary process may not be complete in our lifetime, but we’re already noticing evidence of the shift.

Owls thought to irrupt include the saw-whet, which instead of fully migrating, simply moves a short distance to find new hunting grounds near its home territory.

What is estivation – and do owls estivate?

Estivation is the process of animals becoming dormant after slowing down their metabolisms – and it’s not something owls engage in, nor do they need to. It’s a common misconception that owls will need to estivate during warmer and drier weather thanks to their thick plumages and breeding habits.

Instead, owls cool down by sticking to shaded areas and may even bathe. Unlike the hummingbird, which slows its metabolism right down to a state of torpor when needed, the owl can quickly adapt to hot and cold temperatures with little fuss.

How do owls get through the winter?

Owls are some of the most adaptive species on the planet and are quick to change their hunting habits if food starts looking scarce. Here are a few reasons why owls can withstand the winter freeze more than other creatures.

Their bodies are perfectly adapted

Much of owls’ winter prowess comes from their thick coats and their incredible hunting apparatus. 

Owls don’t store fat for warmth – instead, they have down feathers that grow in extra supply during winter, which allows them to capture more heat close to their bodies. These feathers aren’t just found on their heads and torsos, but also on their feet and legs.

While owls could store fat for warmth, doing so would impede their ability to fly. Instead, they can simply keep growing down feathers, fluffing, and shivering to raise their core temperatures during the freeze. Owls aren’t unique in this regard, as it’s a technique shared by many other bird species that struggle in the cold.

Owl vision is near-unbeatable with regard to precision and scope, but a curious hearing system boosts it. Specifically, owls have asymmetrical ears, sized and positioned differently on either side of their heads to help tune in on available prey, much like using radar.

This enhanced sensitivity proves useful in winter when owls can find prey hidden under snowfall or vegetation. In many cases, owl ears can help find prey without the need for sight at all.

The owl’s circulatory system is also fascinating during winter – as it’s primed to help keep blood warm traveling from foot to heart. This means that owls are at lower risk of losing warmth than other creatures nesting outside.

The owl is also predisposed to feel less pain in its feet and legs than many other animals, which means they won’t be impeded by conditions brought on by the severe cold. Their blood current control helps them to feel warmer for longer.

They’re used to where they hunt

While many owls will choose to fly hundreds of miles away from their childhood nests, they are unlikely to move from hunting grounds once they’ve found that perfect spot. An owl that’s settled in an optimum hunting patch or that has migrated to such a plot, won’t need to hibernate.

Owls learn very quickly whether or not a hunting spot is worthy of their attention and whether or not there’s enough prey to feed on across the winter periods. Instead of hibernating, they will quickly irrupt and become the apex predator of a new hunting spot just a few miles away.

As owls go unthreatened as predators, they can safely adapt to hunting plots and carefully learn their territories. If other owls muscle in on the territory, and/or prey starts to deplete, they simply move on.

They stop flying long distances

The better the hunting spot, the less need there will be for an owl to use all of its energy on flying. Instead, a typical owl will watch for prey across their nesting base, using their energy to keep warm while scouting out food.

Even if food is particularly scarce during the winter, the owl can put its limited energy to good use by carefully scanning the area around it. Owls have tube-shaped eyes that can see for up to a mile – and with heads that rotate up to 270 degrees, all they need to do is get up high and start surveying large expanses beyond them. 

The less energy owls expend, the less they’ll need to eat. Unlike many other predators, their scouting abilities are easy to rely on in a fixed or resting position.

They may change when they hunt

As well as effectively changing where they hunt if necessary, owls can also choose to hunt during the day, as opposed to at night, if prey appears to be scarce during cold winter evenings. Owls hunt at night because they have a fantastic advantage – they have exceptional night vision and are unopposed to seizing upon local prey.

This can change in winter, so owls may change their sleeping and hunting habits to meet feeding ends. Regardless, it is still rare to see and hear owls during the day, only when it’s exceptionally cold.

Do owls store food for the winter?

Owls don’t need to store food for the winter simply because they’re predominantly at the top of their food chains. This means that even in the freeze, they will go unchallenged for much of the prey they choose to feast on.

Owls are equipped with incredible sight and hearing to track down food unlike any other creature, but also the benefit of silent flight. Owls will typically glide down silently behind their prey, picking up their food with their talons when it’s too late for their targets to flee.

Owl talons are also some of the most impressive predator tools to have evolved – sharp enough to tear apart prey in a matter of seconds, they also provide incredible grip, allowing them to perch for long periods in high-up vantage points.

All of these assets mean that owls neither need to hibernate for the winter nor do they need to rely on a stock of food put aside.

What are the coldest temperatures owls can withstand?

Temperature sensitivity will vary from species to species, but all owls can comfortably nest and hunt during winter thanks to their down feather coverage. The snowy owl, having adapted to Arctic conditions, is perhaps the hardiest of all species when temperatures drop.

The snowy owl can survive extremely cold temperatures as low as -68 degrees Farenheight – it’s the most cold-resistant bird species on the planet. You’ll typically find snowy owls in Canada and across the Arctic Tundra, where it feeds on rabbits, fish, lemmings, and other birds.

Where do owls sleep during the winter?

Many owls will create nests high up in robust trees such as junipers and pines, while other species may burrow in the ground. This behavior applies all year round, though most will choose to nest and perch as high up as possible to keep a wide vantage point over any prey that may come their way.

Where do owls go when it starts to rain and snow?

When it starts to rain or snow, owls simply choose to get dry and conserve their energy. They may do so under the canopy of a tree or close to a building. For all owls are fantastic hunters with amazing eyesight and hearing, they’re largely unable to hunt during a downpour.

Hunting during snow and rain may also use up important energy that an owl will likely need to conserve to withstand the rest of the winter season. As such, you’ll never likely see an owl in flight or on the hunt when it snows.

Is it easy to spot owls during winter?

You may find owls make more noise during winter as they mate or try to hunt during the day. These beasts remain elusive to ensure they can swoop down on their prey with silent dive bombs.

Most owls won’t ever hibernate – they’re simply well-equipped to keep hunting in the colder months. Thanks to their impressive blood circulation, down feathers, eyesight, and radar-like hearing, the only thing owls need to worry about is more competition moving in on their patches. When this happens, they simply move a short distance away – ready to seize upon a new plot of prey. Many owls don’t migrate, too, because they’ve carefully adapted to the perfect hunting ground.

About The Author
Robert has been an avid birdwatcher pretty much his entire life. Living in the suburbs he does his best to bring wild birds into his backyard. He currently has 13+ bird feeders in his yard and also raises and races homing pigeons. Robert writes part-time for Wild Yards, mostly about the subject he cares most about - birds.

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