Silent Shadows: Barn Owl Hunting



Barn Owl Hunting

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Barn owls, often cloaked in moonlit hues, are among nature’s most proficient nocturnal hunters. Their silent flight, keen senses, and innate precision have made them revered symbols of stealth and efficiency in many cultures.

In this piece, we’ll explore the hunting prowess of these ethereal raptors, revealing how they excel in the age-old game of predator and prey.

Key Takeaways

  1. Silent Flight: One of the barn owl’s most renowned adaptations is its ability to fly virtually silently. The leading edges of their wing feathers have a unique serrated design that muffles sound, allowing them to approach prey undetected.
  2. Acute Hearing: The barn owl’s heart-shaped facial disc isn’t just for show. It acts as a radar dish, channeling sounds directly to their ears. With one ear positioned slightly higher than the other, they can pinpoint the exact location of sounds both horizontally and vertically, detecting prey even beneath snow or thick vegetation.
  3. Night Vision: While barn owls have exceptional night vision, they rely more on their hearing. Nonetheless, their large, dark eyes are adept at gathering every available scrap of light, enabling them to see in conditions that appear pitch black to us.
  4. Hovering Technique: When a barn owl locates its prey, it often uses a hunting technique known as “hovering.” This tactic involves flying in place over a target area, giving the owl a bird’s-eye view before diving down swiftly to seize its unsuspecting prey.
  5. Diverse Diet: Though they primarily feed on small mammals like mice, voles, and shrews, barn owls also consume birds, insects, and bats when the opportunity arises.
  6. Talons and Beak: Equipped with razor-sharp talons and a powerful beak, barn owls can quickly dispatch and dismember their catch. Their grip strength ensures that prey rarely escapes once seized.

Hunting Habits and Patterns:

  1. Time of Day: While barn owls are known for their nocturnal habits, it’s not uncommon to see them hunting during dawn or dusk, especially when feeding young or during periods of scarce food supply.
  2. Territorial Hunting: Barn owls are territorial creatures. A single pair can command a hunting range of several square kilometers, ensuring they have ample resources without competing with neighboring owls.
  3. Storing Food: During times of abundance, barn owls might cache surplus food in their nesting site or in tree crevices for consumption later.

Barn owls are skilled hunters that have adapted to find and catch their prey efficiently. They primarily feed on small mammals, with their diet consisting mainly of field voles, common shrews, and wood mice.

However, they are also known to eat other prey such as house mice, brown rats, bank voles, and pygmy shrews. Occasionally, barn owls may even take amphibians, invertebrates, birds, and bats as prey.

These birds have a unique way of consuming their food, as they eat their prey whole but cannot digest fur or bone. As a result, they regurgitate these indigestible parts in the form of pellets.


Field Voles

Field voles are a significant part of the barn owl’s diet, accounting for about 45% of their total intake in the UK. These small mammals create burrows through the thick litter layer of rough grassland and emerge through holes to graze on the surface.

The presence of field voles is easiest to spot between November and March, making it an ideal time for barn owls to hunt them.

To further grasp their ecology, the Barn Owls’ Habitat section is crucial. Also, understanding their early life stages from Rearing Young Barn Owls adds depth. Our main Barn Owl page interlinks all these aspects.

Common Shrews

Common shrews are another important prey species for barn owls, constituting approximately 20% of their diet. These small mammals are abundant in grassy areas and provide a valuable food source for the owls.

Wood Mice

Wood mice make up around 15% of the barn owl’s diet. These nocturnal rodents are commonly found in woodland and grassland habitats, making them readily accessible for hunting by barn owls.

Other Prey

In addition to field voles, common shrews, and wood mice, barn owls may also consume other prey species. House mice, brown rats, bank voles, and pygmy shrews are occasionally taken by these birds. However, these prey items make up a smaller proportion of their diet compared to the primary prey species.


Barn owls are most successful in hunting where prey is plentiful. They have specific preferences when it comes to suitable areas for hunting.

Rough Grassland

Rough grassland provides an excellent hunting ground for barn owls due to the abundance of small mammals, particularly field voles. The dense cover created by the grass allows these small mammals to thrive and provides sufficient hiding places for them, making it easier for barn owls to locate and catch their prey.

Crops and Hay Meadows

During the summer months, barn owls may also hunt in crops and hay meadows. These areas provide additional food sources when rough grassland is not as abundant. The tall vegetation of crops and hay meadows offers ideal cover for small mammals that barn owls can prey upon.

Farm Buildings

In bad weather conditions, barn owls often seek shelter and hunt in and around farm buildings. These structures provide protection from the elements and attract rodents, making them attractive hunting grounds for barn owls.


In Ireland, where mice are the primary prey for barn owls, these birds often hunt along hedgerows. Hedgerows provide perches and cover for the owls as they search for mice. However, in Britain, permanent rough grassland remains the preferred habitat for barn owls.


Barn owls have developed specific techniques and adaptations to optimize their hunting success.

Activity Times

Barn owls are most active at dusk and dawn, coinciding with the peak activity of their primary prey species. They leave their roost site during these times, often commuting across unsuitable habitat to reach their preferred hunting areas.

Hunting Methods

Barn owls rely mainly on sound to locate their prey. They fly low and slow, back and forth across suitable habitat, listening for the sound of small mammals below. They have excellent hearing, which helps them pinpoint the exact location of their prey.

Once they detect a potential meal, barn owls will often hover, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. They may also fly along and suddenly drop into the grass to catch their prey by surprise.

Sound Location

Barn owls have one of the most sensitive hearing abilities of any animal tested. They can accurately locate prey by listening to the rustling sounds made by small mammals in the grass or under vegetation.

This highly developed sense of hearing allows them to hunt successfully, even in low light conditions.


When a barn owl spots its prey, it initiates a head-first dive, then pulls its head back and extends its talons to grab the prey. This technique enables them to catch their prey swiftly and efficiently.

Winter Hunting

In winter, barn owls may adjust their hunting strategies to conserve energy. They are more likely to spend time perched on posts or other suitable perching places, scanning the area for any potential prey.

By minimizing activity and reducing heat loss in the cold air, barn owls can survive periods of severe weather and prey scarcity.

Silent Flight

Barn owls have specialized feathers that allow them to fly almost silently. This silent flight is essential for hunting as it prevents their prey from hearing them approaching. However, this adaptation comes at a cost, as their feathers are not particularly waterproof.

Barn owls cannot hunt in heavy rain, and they are more vulnerable to starvation during prolonged periods of severe weather or prey shortage.

Barn owls, with their combination of evolutionary adaptations and natural instincts, are masters of the night, turning the challenges of nocturnal hunting into a refined art. By understanding their hunting techniques, we not only gain insight into their world but also deepen our appreciation for the delicate balance of nature they help maintain.

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