Owls are magnificent creatures and capable birds of prey that have adapted to survive in any environment. There are over 140 owl species out there, divided into Tytonidae, or barn owls, and Strigidae, or all other owls. They live on every continent except Antarctica and in a variety of climates. Some species prefer warmer weather, while others aren’t too bothered by the frigid air of the arctic tundra. But what do owls do in winter? Do they hibernate, migrate, or adapt?
Do Owls Hibernate?
No matter where they live or what species they are, owls don’t hibernate. Most owls living in temperate or cold climates are well-adapted to survive the harsh winters. They have thick feather coats that cover their bodies as well as their legs and feet. Besides, their excellent eyesight and directional hearing help them locate prey concealed by vegetation or snow.
The cold temperature and scarce food supply determine most animals to hibernate or migrate in winter. Most owls do neither. Instead, they are as busy as ever during the cold season.
Not only are owls adapted to live and hunt in harsh weather, but for many species, winter is actually their breeding season.
Behaviors observed in barred owls and great horned owls show that males of both species start looking for territory in late fall, generally finding it by December. By January, they also find a nesting site as well as a mate – unless they already have one. Owls lay their eggs between January and February, giving the future owlets enough time to develop and hatch in early spring.
The mating season is also the reason why owls seem to hoot more in winter compared to other months – owls hoot when claiming a territory, to fend off intruders and to communicate with their mates.
Owls are monogamous and generally divide their duties. After laying the eggs, the female rests in the nest to incubate them while the male hunts and brings her food. The females can incubate eggs in temperatures as low as -35°F. Moreover, the eggs are as adapted to survive the cold weather as their parents – the female can leave them unattended for up to 20 minutes at a time, in temperatures as low as -25°F.
Do Owls Estivate?
The thick layer of feathers and the fact that they breed in cold weather leads people to believe that owls might estivate.
Estivation is the opposite of hibernation; the term is used to refer to animals that slow down their metabolism and become dormant during hot, dry weather.
While some warm-blooded animals are suspected of estivating, owls are not among them. They do not hibernate in winter and do not hibernate in summer either. To survive heat waves and extremely hot weather, owls tend to hide in shaded places during the day or bathe in shallow bodies of water.
Do All Owls Hibernate?
Some people spot owls in their yards or around their barns all summer long, only to see them gone in fall or winter. This may lead you to believe that owls hibernate, which could raise the question of whether all owls hibernate or only some of them.
The truth is, no owl hibernates. The reason why the owls could be gone by winter is that some owl species migrate.
Do Owls Migrate In Winter?
Not all owls migrate, but some do. However, among those that migrate, few do so according to an annual migration pattern. In fact, most owls move randomly from one territory to another in a phenomenon known as irruption. Some species even display both migration behaviors.
Snowy owls, for instance, can display irruptive or annual, medium- to long-distance migration patterns.
Owl populations in the US generally display an irruptive migration behavior, whereas snowy owls living in Canada have a more regular pattern. Snowy owls in northern Canada may not migrate at all, while most of those living in southern Canada migrate to Arctic territories in summer for breeding – snowy owls usually breed from May to September.
Burrowing owls display similar behavior. The northern population of burrowing owls is generally migratory, but most owls nesting in California remain in the region throughout the year.
The saw-whet owls move from one territory to another during winter, but it is more of an irruption than actual migration.
Barn owls may disperse hundreds of miles from where they hatched once they leave their parents’ nest, but they do not seem to migrate once they claim a territory. Similarly, tawny owls are non-migratory and highly territorial.
How Do Owls Survive The Winter?
Owls do not hibernate and tolerate freezing temperatures. But how do they manage to survive the arctic cold and the very harsh winters? They use various coping mechanisms:
Adaptation is the primary coping mechanism animals use to survive harsh weather. Owls can live in cold climates thanks to their thick layer of feathers, unique circulatory system, and off-centered ears.
Unlike mammals that can add layers of fat to survive winter weather, owls don’t have this luxury. Fat would make them become too heavy, impeding flight. To stay warm, these predatory birds add an extra layer of down feathers during fall.
These short and fluffy feathers trap the warm air close to the owl’s body in the same way a beaver’s underfur traps warmth close to the rodent’s skin.
Down feathers not only grow under the main layer of feathers, but they also grow on the owl’s legs and feet, keeping the extremities warm.
Talking about their legs and feet, owls also have a unique circulatory system that enables them to warm the blood flowing from the feet towards the heart. In this way, owls prevent thermal loss even further.
Another adaptation concerns the ears. Almost all owls have their ears concealed under a thick layer of feathers, but that’s not it. Most owls have off-centered ears, with one located higher than the other. This positioning of the ears together with the discs the feathers form on the owl’s face increases their acoustic sensitivity. In fact, owls hear so well that they can detect prey concealed under snow or layers of dry vegetation without actually seeing it.
In addition to excellent hearing, owls also have sharp eyesight and can see the prey even in complete darkness. To get an idea of how well owls can see at night, know that their night vision is about 35 to 100 times better than those of humans.
While owls have specialized bodies, it takes more than adaptation to survive harsh weather. This is where territory familiarity comes in.
Almost all owls are familiar with their winter territory. Migrating owls generally return to the same spot year after year. Even the irruption patterns seem to bring the owls to the same breeding places winter after winter.
Knowing the territory is important because it enables the owl to fly directly to the optimum foraging habitat. This increases the chances of success during a hunt, regardless of the weather or light conditions. Thus, it improves the owl’s (and its family’s) chances of survival.
Changing Activity Patterns
Owls are mainly nocturnal birds. During the summer months, it is rare to see them hunting during the day. However, the activity patterns seem to change in winter.
When the temperatures drop considerably, owls seem to prefer day hunting. While they don’t need daylight to track and catch the prey, they change the behavior because daytime temperatures are warmer. In this way, owls prevent useless heat loss.
Another coping mechanism is that of preserving energy. In the summer months, owls generally fly over their territory looking for prey. Things change when the weather is harsh.
More often than not, owls will find a watching spot during winter. This could be a tree branch, fence post, or even the roof of a barn. From this spot, the owls survey the ground and launch towards the prey once they detect it.
By limiting their flight, owls manage to preserve their energy and stay alive when food is scarce. Limiting their flight also allows them to conserve heat.
Owls are adaptable birds of prey that can live in most climates and temperatures. They do not hibernate, but some owls migrate in regular or random patterns. No matter where they live and what migratory behavior they have, all owls employ advanced coping strategies to survive the harsh winters.