Owls are predominantly birds of prey and night hunters. They belong to the order scientifically known as Strigiformes, which is made up of around 200 different species of owl. The word ‘raptor’ comes from the Latin language, meaning to seize or capture and is a name that is used commonly with birds of prey that have strong feet and talons, a hook-beak and primarily survive on a diet of meat. But are Owls therefore Raptors?
There is a mixed opinion on whether Owls should be classed as a raptor because of conflicting names and clarification methods. The term ‘raptor’ is often used interchangeably with the term ‘bird of prey’, and the term ‘bird of prey’ is also used specifically when referring to Falconiformes of which the Owl is not a member. A further complication is added by a raptors classification leaving out many accepted ‘birds of prey. Until the scientific community devises a better clarification method, I believe that Owls should be classified as raptors.
The definition of a Raptor
Owls are formidable predators that are masters at hunting at dusk and night. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding these majestic birds and this guide helps demystify and answer the question of whether owls are raptors.
Check out each of these traits and how they take us toward confirming that owls should be classified as raptors.
One of the main characteristics shared by all raptors is that they are not only carnivorous, but they generally eat relatively big prey. Owls eat other animals, ranging from small insects to rodents, fish, reptiles, other birds, and some mammals. Some species of owls even eat other smaller owl species.
There are many birds that eat small insects, rodents, and fish but aren’t raptors. The difference is that raptors will hunt prey that might be even twice as big as the bird. Owls are stocky creatures with a strong build. They can carry prey that weighs almost as much as three times their body weight.
Owls have powerful eyesight and can see eight to ten times further than the human eye. Like most raptors, the eyes of the owl are relatively large compared to the face and head.
However, raptors can’t move their eyes as humans can. Instead, they can turn their heads almost all round. For instance, owls have extra bones in their necks which allow them to rotate their heads 270 degrees compared to 90 degrees for humans.
To protect their eyes, raptors have three eyelids. Humans routinely blink by opening and closing the upper eyelid. Owls on the other hand blink by closing the top or bottom eyelid. A third eyelid, the nictitating membrane, closes laterally across the eyeball to:
- Keep the owl’s eyes moist.
- Shield the eyes from wind and debris during flight.
- Protect the eyes from attack by prey when hunting or feeding their young.
Most owls are nocturnal, though there are diurnal and crepuscular types. The nocturnal owls have to hunt in the night, and that means they have to rely on their other senses to find prey. Thus, owls are known to have one of the best auditory senses in the animal kingdom.
For example, Barn Owls can locate small rodents hiding in vegetation by using only their hearing. Some types of owls can locate rodents hidden in burrows in the ground or under snow using only their auditory senses.
Owls, like other raptors, have asymmetric ears. With one ear higher than the other, the different wavelengths help the owl pinpoint the exact location and direction of movement. Additionally, owls have flat faces which work like satellite receivers. The facial feathers direct sound waves to the sides of the face where the ears are located.
Most raptors have powerful leg muscles, strong, flexible toes, and sharp talons. Their feet are their top weapon against prey. Like other raptors, owls’ feet are perfectly designed to catch, hold, carry, and kill prey.
Most raptors have three toes pointing forward, with one pointing backwards for a powerful grip. Owls and ospreys have an added advantage in that they can turn one of their forward-facing toes backwards for an even firmer grip. The hinged toe allows the bird to hold slippery prey with two talons on each side.
Fact: Although vultures are categorised as birds of prey, one accepted definition of raptors having strong feet would exclude them. Vultures are known to have much weaker feet than other birds of prey, but it does not exclude them from being categorised as raptors as they make up part of the hawk and eagles species of birds.
Like all birds, owls have no teeth to chew food with. Instead, they possess strong curved beaks which they use to tear the flesh of their prey.
Owls use their hooked bills to tear meat, crush bones, and break the vertebrae of their prey’s spinal cords.
Like most raptors, owls are stealthy hunters. They are silent and swift hunters mainly due to their wings’ size, shape, and features.
Owls have a much larger wing surface area to body mass ratio. This helps the owl fly fast and glide without falling to the ground. The wide wings allow owls to glide for long periods observing the ground and listening for prey movement. Once they locate the prey, they can quickly swoop down with little time for their prey to react.
Owl’s feathers are special compared to other birds. They have a soft texture and a tapered shape that muffle the sound of the owl’s flight. For this reason, owls are on record as being one of the most silent birds in flight.
Other related question asked
What Makes Owls Unique Raptors? Even though owls are raptors and share many similarities with other raptors, some characteristics are unique to owls. Owls are nocturnal in nature, while most other raptors are diurnal. So you’re more likely to spot an eagle or a hawk during the day than spotting an owl.
How Much Weight Can Owls Carry? Owls can carry prey that’s as much as three times greater than their own. In comparison, a typical hawk can carry prey that weighs up to half its own body weight.