Owls are powerful raptors and strong predators, and because they are often nocturnal they are rarely seen and the risks they face are not as well known. Owls face many serious threats, however, and birders who are aware of those hazards can take appropriate steps to help create a more owl-friendly world.
Owls face a wide range of threats as they go about their daily activities. The most dangerous threats to owls include:
- Poison: Poisons used to kills rats, mice, and other rodents remain in the animals’ bodies and can poison owls that may prey on those rodents after they are contaminated. Herbicides that infect mice and rats that eat grain can also impact owls in the same way, because the birds pick up the chemicals through the rodents they eat. The toxins can accumulate in owls’ bodies to lethal levels, resulting in lengthy debilitation and death.
- Vehicles: Many owls fly low over roadways while hunting, or they may catch prey at the side of roads and then be vulnerable to being hit by passing cars. This is especially problematic near agricultural fields as well as in wooded areas that are home to large owl populations. Because owls hunt at night, a driver may not see the bird in time to safely avoid a collision.
- Fences: Fences are a threat to owls that feed in open areas, such as barn owls and short-eared owls. While flying over the fields to hunt, these birds can easily collide with fences and become tangled in the wire or netting, causing injuries, damaged feathers, strangulation, or starvation.
- Outdoor decorations: Like fences, outdoor decorations are dangerous to birds when they are strung across potential flight paths, such as outdoor lights or fake cobwebs decorating a yard. These decorations can snare birds, which can lead to broken bones and other injuries as well as making them more vulnerable to other predators. Large outdoor sports nets, such as soccer nets, are a similar hazard.
- Habitat loss: All birds are vulnerable to habitat loss, and logging often destroys the forest habitats preferred by many owls. Development that destroys prey populations of mice, voles, rats, rabbits, and similar creatures also threatens owls by eliminating critical food sources.
- Nesting site loss: Many owls are cavity-nesting birds that require old, hollow trees for suitable nesting sites. As those trees are removed the birds have no safe place to raise owlets and their breeding success declines dramatically. The removal of old buildings and barns also eliminates nesting sites for barn owls and newer structures are not as safe or suitable for owl nesting.
- Poaching: Owls may be poached and brought into illegal captivity, particularly because of the popularity of pet owls as fictionalized in the Harry Potter books and movie series. While different countries have different restrictions about captive or pet owls, poaching remains a serious threat to many types of owls. Owl eggs may also be stolen from nests so the chicks can be raised in captivity.
- Superstitions: Many cultures have superstitions about owls as harbingers of death or evil, and because of those misconceptions, the birds may be deliberately discriminated against and harmed.
- Birders: Even a well-meaning birder can inadvertently threaten owls. Most owls are nocturnal or crepuscular and roost during the day, and birders can disturb that critical rest time. If attention is drawn to the owl, nearby birds may mob the owl and force it to relocate to a less desirable location. Simply by being nearby, birders can increase an owl’s stress level and disrupt its necessary activities, including preening or caring for chicks.
How You Can Help Owls
Despite the many threats owls face, it is easy to take steps to protect these birds.
- If you must control a rodent problem, opt for traps rather than poisons, and be sure all dead animals are disposed of immediately and out of reach of foraging birds and other wildlife.
- Drive slow and stay alert for flying owls or roadside birds at night, and give the birds a wide berth to allow them maneuvering room if they do take flight.
- If going owling or locating a rare owl, follow all appropriate birding ethics and place the bird’s safety above your need for a better view or photograph.
- Minimize the use of outdoor decorations and plan their placement with birds’ safety in mind. Take down decorations right away after holidays to remove the threat.
- Take steps to make fences more visible to birds, and remove any barbed wire or razor wire fences whenever possible to minimize the risk of bird injuries.
- Leave an old barn or shed available for nesting or roosting owls if possible, or create a space within a new building that owls can safely use.
- Teach children about owls and why these birds are important to dispel fear or suspicion and encourage a new generation of owl lovers.
- Make your yard more owl-friendly by taking steps to attract owls and provide them a safe, comfortable space to call home.
Owls are majestic, ethereal birds that captivate birders and non-birders alike, and by learning about the risks owls face we can all take steps to help minimize the hazards and protect owls.