With their enigmatic nocturnal habits and hooting calls, owls have intrigued humans for centuries. The mystery surrounding owls has given rise to various questions about their lives.
One of the main questions about owls is: “How long do owls live?” That question doesn’t have a single answer as many factors influence owl lifespans, including the species and its size.
Understanding the longevity of owls is crucial for general knowledge, conservation, and management practices. By understanding their longevity, we can better understand their population dynamics, life history, and factors influencing their survival.
Owls are divided into two families – the Strigidae and Tytonidae – and comprise over 250 species distributed worldwide. Each one of the 250-odd species has a unique lifespan and challenges that influence its longevity.
In this article, we will look deeper into the fascinating lives of owls and discuss the range of lifespans observed among different species, along with the owl life cycle.
When it comes to longevity, owls usually have longer lifespans than many other birds. Owls are often long-lived because they have incredible adaptations that allow them to survive, and they have lower levels of predation from larger birds.
In terms of the factors that influence owl longevity, the most significant factors are the species, associated size, and living conditions. With the approximately 250 species of owls in the world comes a range of sizes. There are many owls of similar dimensions, but there are often slight differences in longevity between those species.
When focusing on size, larger owls generally have longer lifespans than smaller owls. The larger owl species typically can handle more extreme environmental conditions, allowing them to live longer. There are exceptions, of course, as other factors play their role in an owl’s lifespan.
While size and species are significant, whether an owl lives in the wild or captivity is just as important. As you know, many owls live in captivity for various reasons. There is generally a substantial difference in lifespan between the owls that live in the wild and those that live in captivity.
In general, owls living in captivity live longer than wild owls. The main reasons for the difference in longevity are that the captive owls don’t face predators found in the wild, they often get medical care if they pick up a disease, food is provided, and they have a safe place to sleep.
The availability and quality of the owl’s habitat also significantly influences longevity. Those owls lucky enough to inhabit undisturbed habitats with abundant prey and nesting sites tend to have longer lifespans than those living in fragmented and degraded habitats.
Habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation negatively influence owl longevity and survival rates due to reduced nesting sites and food abundance.
Owls are specialized hunters, which means their lifespans are heavily influenced by prey availability. Prey availability often varies drastically in particular habitats because of climate change and habitat alterations.
That significantly impacts owl survival, ultimately affecting their lifespan because a lower prey abundance means the owls won’t have as much food and won’t live for as long.
A lesser influence on owl longevity is predation risk and competition. Since owls are nocturnal and typically larger than other birds, they have less of a predation risk, but that doesn’t mean larger birds of prey and other animals can’t eat them.
The smaller owl species, in particular, are vulnerable to predation from birds of prey and mammals such as wolves and foxes. They are particularly susceptible during the breeding season when they spend more time sedentary on nests. In a few scenarios, competition for food and nesting sites between species negatively influences owl longevity.
Lastly, anthropogenic influences often drastically influence owl longevity. These factors include habitat destruction and fragmentation through deforestation and urbanization. This puts owls closer to human habituation and increases the probability of the owls falling victim to vehicle strikes and pollution, along with disturbances while foraging and nesting.
When owls have low prey abundance, they may venture onto farms to find food and get persecuted and illegally shot. Pesticides are sometimes used to eradicate owl prey items, and they can build up in an owl’s body, negatively impacting the owl.
Owl Life Cycle
To fully understand owl longevity, we must look deeper into their life cycle. An owl’s lifespan encompasses a range of life stages in the cycle, which differ from each other by unique characteristics, including behaviors and physical changes.
The owl’s life begins in the egg stage when the female lays and incubates eggs. The eggs are usually laid in a nest within a tree cavity, on a branch, or in a nest box.
The incubation period varies according to the species but typically lasts around one month. During this stage, the eggs contain embryos that grow inside the eggs until they hatch.
Once the chicks hatch, they enter the nestling stage. The chicks are born tiny, with downy feathers covering their skin. The nestlings are small, helpless, vulnerable, and dependent on their parents for food, protection, and warmth.
They remain in the nest throughout this stage as they grow and develop further. The duration of this life cycle stage varies according to the owl species, but it typically lasts for six to eight weeks.
Owl nestlings move into the fledgling stage once old enough to grow flight feathers. They take their first flights and eventually leave the nest to explore the surroundings.
While exploring, they fine-tune their flying skills and learn hunting techniques from their parents. They still depend on their parents for food and protection as they are still vulnerable to predation. As the fledglings grow and become more confident, they become less reliant on their parents.
The juvenile stage is the transitional stage between adolescence and adulthood. The fledglings become fully independent and are then known as juveniles. At this stage, they have a full body of feathers but still look different from their parents.
It’s at this stage when the young birds wander into new areas searching for territories and can survive independently – finding food and defending themselves. The main threats at this stage are competition with other owls of the same age looking for territories and food.
At this point, the owls have reached adulthood. They molt into adult plumage and establish nesting territories. They are capable of reproduction, so they engage in courtship displays and select mates. Eventually, they breed and raise young. Their vocalizations also become fully developed.
Owl Life Expectancy Examples
The Snowy Owl is a stunning, distinct-looking owl, recognizable by its predominantly white plumage with dark markings and bright yellow eyes. It is one of the world’s largest owls, growing up to 28 inches (71 centimeters) in length and weighing up to 104 ounces (2950 grams).
They are some of the most long-lived owls, but their Arctic habitat is exceptionally harsh, and their average lifespan is 9 to 10 years. The oldest recorded wild Snowy Owl lived for over 23 years, 10 months. In captivity, they have been recorded living up to 35 years.
Snowy Owls have very harsh conditions that impact their longevity, including icy weather conditions and limited food availability, particularly regarding lemmings. They are also threatened by wolves and foxes that may predate younger birds.
The Barn Owl is a unique nocturnal raptor characterized by a heart-shaped facial disk and ghostly pale appearance. They are medium-sized birds that grow to a maximum of 15 inches (38 centimeters) in length and weigh as much as 25 ounces (700 grams).
They have an average lifespan of 4 to 5 years in the wild. The oldest recorded wild Barn Owl lived to be over 15 years old. In captivity, they have been recorded living for up to 25 years.
They are threatened by habitat loss and degradation, which impacts their food and nesting site availability. Pesticides significantly threaten their longevity, accumulating in their systems after eating infected prey. They are also preyed upon by larger birds of prey and are subject to collisions with vehicles.
The Great Horned Owl is a large, formidable hunter with a mottled brown appearance, yellow eyes, and prominent ear tufts. They can grow as large as 25 inches (64 centimeters) in length and weigh around 88 ounces (2500 grams).
Due to their large size, they have an average lifespan of 10 to 15 years. However, the oldest recorded individual was over 28 years old. Incredibly, the oldest Great Horned Owl in captivity lived for 50 years.
They face many threats to their survival, including habitat loss from deforestation and urbanization, pesticides, vehicle collisions, electrocution on power lines, and illegal hunting.
Another one of the largest owls in the world, the Eurasian Eagle Owl, is also very long-lived. They have imposing size – growing up to 30 inches (76 centimeters) in length, and they weigh up to 141 ounces (4000 grams).
Their large ear tufts, orange eyes, and mottled brown plumage are unique features. They camouflage excellently into the environment and live on average for 20 to 25 years. In some cases, Eurasian Eagle Owls have lived for 60 years in captivity.
They face habitat degradation and destruction threats, impacting their foraging and nesting habits. They sometimes feed on livestock, leading to them being persecuted and shot. They are also affected by pesticides and collisions with power lines and vehicles.
The Barred Owl is a medium-sized owl that measures a maximum of 20 inches (50 centimeters) in length and weighs up to 37 ounces (1050 grams). They have well-patterned plumage, dark eyes, and barred brown and white bodies.
They live relatively long lives, with their average longevity being 8 to 10 years. In the wild, the oldest known Barred Owl was around 26 years, 7 months old. In captivity, however, they have been known to live for 38 years.
Like many other species, the Barred Owl is threatened by habitat loss and disturbance at nesting sites, primarily because of deforestation. They also face competition from the Spotted Owl, competing for food and nesting sites in parts of its range. Predation from larger birds of prey and vehicle collisions also play a role in decreasing their longevity.
The Tawny Owl is a medium-sized owl that grows to a length of 18 inches (46 centimeters) and weighs as much as 25 ounces (700 grams). They have large dark eyes and reddish-brown plumage overall.
Their average lifespan in the wild is 4 to 5 years. In the wild, the maximum recorded age of a Tawny Owl is 23 years, while in captivity, they can live for more than 27 years.
Their lifespans are reduced by threats such as habitat fragmentation and loss, urbanization, and agricultural practices. They are also vulnerable to vehicle collisions and predation.
The Burrowing Owl is a small species of owl with a unique appearance showing long legs, yellow eyes, and sandy-brown plumage with white spots. They grow to a maximum length of 11 inches (28 centimeters) and weigh up to 8 ounces (230 grams).
Due to their smaller size, Burrowing Owls live relatively short lives. In the wild, their average lifespan is 3 to 4 years. The oldest known wild Burrowing Owl lived to 9 years, 11 months. The oldest captive Burrowing Owl lived to be 12 years old.
They are susceptible to habitat loss and degradation, particularly in grasslands and prairies that are converted to agricultural lands and urbanization. They are also vulnerable to predation from larger raptors and vehicle collisions.
Overall, owls often live very long lives. The answer to the query about how long owls live is relatively complicated as there isn’t one straight answer. The longevity of owls depends on many factors, but two of the main influences are the size of the species and whether the individual lives in the wild or captivity.
Generally speaking, large owls live longer than small owls. For example, the Snowy Owl is one of the world’s largest owls, and because of that, it has one of the longest lifespans. Compare that to an owl like the Burrowing Owl, a small species that lives for a shorter duration.
The longevity of owls in captivity drastically increases as the threats they face in the wild are taken away, and they have ample food availability. The biggest species can live for over 50 years in captivity.
Owl survival faces many threats, especially habitat loss, persecution, pesticide poisoning, and vehicle collisions. Understanding the danger each owl species faces is essential as that knowledge helps implement conservation and management efforts that protect the species and their favored habitats.
The fact that owls can live for so many years indicates their adaptability and resilience in the changing and challenging environments they call home.
Today, conservation efforts aimed at preserving habitats, reducing human-made dangers, and promoting sustainable practices ensure the longevity of owl populations. That is important because owls play critical roles in their environments and are essential in ecosystem functioning.