Updated date:

Can You Own an Owl as a Pet and How Do You Care for One?

Author:

Kaycee is an exotic pet owner experienced in working with a variety of non-domesticated animals.

A pet white faced owl (Ptilopsis leucotis)

A pet white faced owl (Ptilopsis leucotis)

The word "owl" refers to any member of the order Strigiformes. Species in this order are primarily characterized by their nocturnal habits, preference for solitary social lives, and unique feather structures that enable silent flight, with few exceptions. All owls are carnivorous, most primarily feeding on small rodents and other mammals.

Owls have always been respected animals. However, their popularity has seen a sharp increase ever since the debut of the Harry Potter films, which features owls as affectionate companions to the wizards of the story and deliverers of mail. As a result, more and more people are finding the idea of a pet owl interesting, enamored by their portrayal in films and media they consume. But is this a realistic dream?

Expectations vs Reality

The majority of people who have an interest in owning an owl as a pet have unrealistic expectations for how owls would act as a pet. Due to the lack of information on owning them, this is not surprising; a quick Google search about any questions regarding the mere idea of having a pet owl is met with scathing remarks and ridicule. People are simply told not to get one, by people who don't want them to.

It is important to separate fiction from reality, to realize that owls are their own unique species, and respect them as such. Owls do not act like parrots, which are highly social birds. They will not actively seek your attention, and most don't tolerate being pet or touched due to their solitary nature. They are messy, as all birds are, and require effort to maintain. And their lifespans are long, with the captive life expectancy of a Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo) being up to 60 years.[1] This, combined with a price upwards of $6,000 just for the owl, is not appealing to most people.

However, every animal species has unique husbandry requirements, handling methods, and responsibility attached to them, big or small. For those genuinely interested in owning owls, their unique needs are not innately a problem; just something needing to be researched and understood.

Owls are solitary and typically do not enjoy being touched.

Owls are solitary and typically do not enjoy being touched.

Legality of Owning Owls

The first topic to discuss in direct relation to actually owning an owl as a pet is legality. In the United States of America, it is illegal on a federal level to own any species of owl native to North America.[2] This is due to a law known as The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and it means species such as barn owls (Tyto alba) and snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) to name a few, are not able to be kept unless you are a licensed falconer with the necessary permits—a time-consuming process that may take years. A complete list of all bird species protected, by the United States Fish & Wildlife Services can be found here.

However, exotic species of owls that are not native to North America are legal to own, so long as your state of residence does not have its own laws regulating them. Exotic species commonly available in the United States are the Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo) and the spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata). The Eurasian eagle owl is one of the largest and most powerful species of owl, and most breeders do not sell to people without prior experience handling large raptors due to the capacity for damage these birds have.

Other species of exotic owls such as the white-faced owl (Ptilopsis leucotis) and little owl (Athene noctua) are far better options as pets due to their small size. In the United States, these species are scarcely seen even in zoos, so prospective owners would have to look into having a bird imported from a country such as the United Kingdom; an extremely time-consuming, costly task with its own plethora of legalities that exceed the scope of this article.

Diet

Owls are obligate carnivores. As such, they should only be fed a diet of meat, and sometimes insects, depending on the species. Larger species of owl such as the Eurasian eagle owl will have slightly different dietary needs compared to smaller species like little owls, which feed on significantly smaller prey in the wild.

Appropriate food sources for most pet owls include day-old chicks and mice, which are easily sourced from local pet stores or ordered online. Species that frequently eat insects in the wild can be fed house crickets, dubia roaches, mealworms, and silkworms. Feeding your owl foods such as packaged chicken or beef is not nutritionally adequate or acceptable.[3]

An adult Barn Owl may eat 1½ to 2 dead day-old chicks per night (roughly the equivalent of 3 voles). When feeding wild or captive Barn Owls, use common sense. Increase or reduce the food supply according to the amount the owls are taking. Some will eat 2 chicks every night and a starved bird may eat 3. Remember that 2 medium-sized mice are approximately equal to 1 day-old chick.

— The Barn Owl Trust UK

Feeding owls is not for the squeamish and can be very messy. Any uneaten or discarded food should promptly be removed from the enclosure, and surfaces that come into contact with prey items should be cleaned regularly with a bird-safe cleaning solution to prevent bacteria and spoilage. Sanitation is a must when keeping owls.

An appropriate enclosure for Great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) and other similarly sized owls.

An appropriate enclosure for Great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) and other similarly sized owls.

Housing

Enclosures should offer enough room to allow your owl to fully spread its wings and exhibit natural behaviors, such as brief flight. Owls are quite sedentary when compared to other raptor species, and their enclosure sizes are, as a result, smaller than the ones required for other raptors.[4]

Recommended enclosure sizes vary depending on the species of owl you own. The table below shows an example of the size of enclosure you would need for legal species in the United States.

[4] McKeever, K., Redig, P., Evans, R. and Heyden, N., 1987. Care and rehabilitation of injured owls. Vineland [Ont.]: Owl Rehabilitation Research Foundation.

SpeciesLength & WidthHeight

White Faced Scops Owl, Pygmy Owl

9 .8 x 5.0 Feet

9.0 Feet

Eurasian Eagle Owl

29.0 x 11.5 Feet

9.0 Feet

Substrates used for enclosures varies. Many people use sand, pea gravel, or grass. Mulch, aspen bedding, and straw are not recommended due to their potential to nurture molds that are toxic to birds when their airborne spores are inhaled. Wood chips are also commonly used, but require care to ensure they do not stay damp.[5] Concrete and other hard, sharp surfaces should be avoided. Substrate should be cleaned regularly.

Enclosures can be furnished with ledges, appropriately sized rope and branch perches, and non-toxic plants. Shallow bathing pans are a must for your owl, and can be purchased at falconry supply shops, as can all the other necessities for owl care.

Health and Safety

If you own a pet owl, you cannot simply take it to your local vet. Owls are exotic animals, and only veterinary clinics specializing in treating exotics will treat them. Having a qualified veterinarian is essential to the health of your owl. Owls do not require vaccinations as a dog or cat would, but exotic veterinarians who are knowledgeable in raptors are an invaluable asset to any owner.

Owls have the physical capacity to harm people, corresponding to the size of the bird. Small species such as pygmy and white-faced owls are not a cause for concern; but large owls, such as great horned owls, can exert up to 500lbs of pressure per square inch with their feet-- Eurasian eagle owls even more. Combined with large, sharp talons, this can send an adult to the ER. Experience handling large raptors is recommended before getting one for this very reason.

The formidable talons of a Eurasian eagle owl.

The formidable talons of a Eurasian eagle owl.

I Recommend Doing More Research

Overall, the idea of having an owl as a pet tends to be more appealing than the reality of it. Owls require hard work and dedication to provide for over the course of their entire lives and are a significant financial investment.

This article is not written with the intent to be your only source of information on this subject. If you are still interested in owning an owl, I recommend you get hands-on experience working with them at your local raptor or wildlife center, peruse falconry forums, and read some of the numerous books available on owls and other raptors.

References

[1] Owlcation - Education. 2021. Everything You Wanted to Know About the Eurasian Eagle Owl.

[2] Fws.gov. 2021. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Migratory Bird Program | Conserving America's Birds

[3] The Barn Owl Trust. 2021. Feeding Barn Owls.

[4] McKeever, K., Redig, P., Evans, R. and Heyden, N., 1987. Care and rehabilitation of injured owls. Vineland [Ont.]: Owl Rehabilitation Research Foundation.

[5] Ash, L., 2021. The Modern Apprentice - Mews.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Related Articles