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7 Reasons Owls Make Great Pets

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

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Do Owls Make Good Pets?

The purpose of this article is to address the influx of misleading information as well as the double standards that people tend to have when discussing alternative exotic pets.

Owls are iconic animals. Their large, expressive eyes and unusual vocalizations make them stand out among the bird family. Along with their representation in children’s films, it is not surprising that many people wonder if they could make good pets, but the real answer to this question is complex.

The Definition of "Good Pet" Varies

A “good pet” is generally a subjective opinion. Obviously, animals that do not do well and tend to suffer in captivity, which is evidenced by poor health and reduced lifespan, make pretty poor pets for everyone. However, there are some grey areas.

Despite their popularity, many reptiles, while making excellent pets for people who practice proper husbandry, die prematurely due to husbandry errors at the hands of a significant number of owners. As a result, sometimes even these animals are described as being “bad pets” when they clearly aren't.

So where does that leave owls? There are so many websites dedicated to spreading horror stories about what awful pets owls make, as well as claiming they are all illegal in the United States, which is completely untrue. Most of the time, these claims come from people who’ve never owned owls or have even considered it.

There is a tendency for people to jump to conclusions when discussing keeping a “wild animal” as a pet, and it is rarely an objective, balanced, and factual discussion. As what constitutes a “good pet” is arbitrary, owls can easily fit the bill, as long as the owner is prepared for them, is willing to provide some more involved care, and doesn’t expect them to be something they aren’t. Here are some reasons owls (particularly smaller, hand-reared, human-imprinted owls) make great pets.

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1. They Have a Simple Diet

Multiple websites vehemently warn readers that owls are a pain to feed. They bemoan the woes of stuffing your freezer with dead mice and quail and claim this makes them unacceptable pets. This is strange considering that snake owners must practice this slightly unsavory aspect of pet care yet never complain about it, nor are there multiple websites denouncing keeping snakes as pets due to this.

In addition, compared to parrots, the diet of owls is pretty straight-forward (keeping raptors at a good weight for hunting is more complex [4]) once appropriate food items are selected and quantified for the bird’s energy expenditure and size [3][4] to prevent obesity as well as starvation [4]. In most cases, they can be fed once a day at night or in the late afternoon [7]. It is not recommended to feed one food type to raptors due to differences in nutrient availability [4][6], but owls only need to consume a small number of food items in comparison to parrots, who need large variety of vegetables (cooked and fresh), seeds, prepared foods, and even cooked pasta and specialized bird-friendly breads.

For raptors, day-old chicks are the staple prey item for the majority of species because they contain decent metabolisable and gross energy levels [4][6]. Other prey items should include whole quail, young rats [2], and to a lesser degree mice, and these whole prey foods would compose an adequate diet. [4] Commercial diets designed specifically for raptors are also available [3][8]. Like most exotic pets, the exact nutritional requirements of owls is unknown [2].

It is important to frequently weigh owls and other raptors to make sure they maintain good health.

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2. They Are Nocturnal

While this can seem like a drawback, some people may find an owl's mostly nocturnal nature very beneficial. Diurnal parrots demand their owner's attention daily, which can clash with their jobs and recreational activities. Nocturnal animals are better suited for people who prefer to interact with their pet when the day is winding down.

In addition, while they prefer to be awake at night, nocturnal animals often acclimate to their owner’s schedule and may be awake during the day, albeit they’ll be a lot calmer. Most owl species become active at dusk and dawn, making them more crepuscular [6], so this is perfect for those who work a 9 to 5.

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3. They Are Solitary

The most popular exotic birds that are kept as pets are companion animals. Parrots and some soft bills demand the constant attention of their owners or require another bird to bond with, as these animals form close relationships with their mates in the wild or are even monogamous.

Many owls are completely solitary outside of breeding season [6] and are not dependent on human affection, or social species like barn owls can adapt to solitary living [9]. This is a tremendous advantage for captive living because social isolation for gregarious species can reduce their quality of life.

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4. They Are Legal in the United States

Native owls are illegal in the United States for non-educational or scientific use with private individuals unless you jump through the very extensive hoops of becoming an advanced falconer. Many online sources and some dubious falconers then misinterpret (or outright lie about) this information and claim that owls are illegal.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act does not regulate exotic owl species that are not native to the United States and they are perfectly legal to own as long as your state and city allows it. Owls are probably legal in more states than other exotic pets like foxes, primates, raccoons, and exotic felids because pet birds are more culturally accepted and garner less attention to legislators. The downside is that there are few species available, and currently the only owls common in the trade are the very large and powerful Eurasian eagle owl and the speckled owl. However, the opportunity exists to import more exotic species that have the potential to make better pets at smaller sizes.

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5. They Are Sedentary

Considered to be sedentary compared to other raptors [1] many owl species in captivity are happy to complacently sit on a perch without having numerous activities available as a parrot requires. Even in the wild during their active hours, owls prefer to expend as little energy as possible, perching and waiting for their prey to appear so they can quickly attack [6].

In captivity, this can be simulated with training the owls to hunt or fly to different perches. Owls also have smaller minimum housing requirements for birds of prey [6]. As raptors are easily stressed by stimulus, they require visual barriers in their enclosure with perhaps a small window to view the outdoors[3][5]. Aside from training, their enrichment requirements include different size and 'loose' perches [6].

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6. They Are Fascinating and Unique

From their ability to turn their heads up to 270 degrees, to the wonderfully bizarre shape-shifting talents of the 'transforming owl' (northern white-faced owl), owls are unique members of the avian family that are a joy to watch. Many websites place extreme emphasis on the fact that owls and other raptors are not friendly, and with their small-sized brains they will only have an interest in hunting and other basic animal drives.

This, however, is not the only reason people keep pets. Fish are not very cuddly, but they are engaging pets. Having the opportunity to hold and observe an owl up close is an experience owl owners have every day and other people would be willing to pay to do so for minutes. For animals that only care about hunting, they have unique personalities that their caretakers will come to recognize. It's not really very difficult to see why a pet owl is appealing to many.

A long-eared owl.

A long-eared owl.

7. Lifespan

While many laypeople and falconers decry keeping owls as non-hunting pets because they believe they belong in the wild, these birds can be healthy enough to reach adequate lifespans in captivity that often exceeds their wild lifespan. In addition, unlike many parrots that can live past 70 years, these birds have a reasonable lifespan of (depending on the species) 10-30 years [6][9].

  • On average, the barn owl lives 17 years in captivity, while the highest known age a wild barn owl has reached is 21 years [6]. In the wild, barn owls generally survive 2 years and most don't survive their first year [9]. Not accounting for first year mortality, barn owls survive about 3 years on average [6].
  • Owls have increased mortality from old age and can live longer in captivity due to this. Starvation is a major cause of death in the wild [6].
  • A wild long-eared owl that was kept in captivity survived 30 years. In the wild they are estimated to have a lifespan of 10 years.
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8. They Are Challenging to Own

All in all, exotic pets are appealing to most people because they present an opportunity to get close to something that you would normally only see asleep in a zoo or in an extravagant (and sometimes staged) wildlife documentary. In addition to owls being unique and interesting, the challenges of owning one can be rewarding in itself.

The feeling of successfully providing proper care to an exotic animal and being ‘your own zookeeper’ has significant enrichment value that is often downplayed by those who suggest that the inconveniences of caring for a pet outside of dog and cat ownership are just not worth it.

  1. Bildstein, Keith L., and David Michael Bird. Raptor research and management techniques. Hancock House, 2007.
  2. Daut, Elizabeth F. "RAPTOR NUTRITION AND EMACIATION MANAGEMENT."
  3. Deem, Sharon Lynn. "Raptor medicine: basic principles and noninfectious conditions." Compendium on continuing education for the practicing veterinarian (1999).
  4. Forbes, Neil. “Raptor Nutrition.” 2014.
  5. Habben, Mark and Parry-Jones, Jemima. EAZA Falconiformes and Strigiformes TAG1EAZA Falconiformes and Strigiformes Taxon Advisory Group Husbandry and Management GuidelinesFor Demonstration Birds. The International Centre for Birds of Prey.
  6. Parry-Jones, J., and A. Ferguson. "Management guidelines for the welfare of zoo animals strigiformes (owls)." London: British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (2004).
  7. Neasbey, C. Masked Owl Husbandry Guidelines. 2008.
  8. Nijboer, Joeke. “Nutrition in Raptors.” Merck and the Merck Veterinary Manual. On-line Accessed at.
  9. Sieders, A. Barn Owl Husbandry Guidelines (2009).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Bungo on December 27, 2019:

As someone who has prepared diets for owls and parrots and worked with both animals at a zoo (an accredited one at that), I can confirm that the point about the diets and owls being sedentary and being easier to take care of than parrots. The only “problem” I had with the owls is one of them being flightier than the other, but that’s a problem the animal had as an individual not as an captive owl. Owls are definitely not rocket science or cryptic to handle.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 24, 2019:

Linda Nowell Name even a single animal that everyone knows how to take care of and has never been surrendered. I'll wait. Frankly, I've had some bad experiences with animals I DO own, but that is not true for others, so getting an owl, which I am looking to do at present, will probably not change the information I've presented here.

Linda Nowell on December 24, 2019:

Most people are not educated on raptor care. I’m from the UK and take in owls that are raised as pets and are tossed out. I’d suggest if you’ve haven’t worked with these birds or have own one that you’d avoid making harmful articles that promote the keeping of them. You seem very set on the idea that they make good pets but you don’t have the experience. You’re not speaking from the perspective of someone who owns raptors but rather someone who’s an exotic keeper than thinks every animal should be owned by the public. Not a healthy mindset to have. Just because you have a bird does not mean you have raptor experience.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 21, 2019:

While falconers and educators have monopolized owl ownership in the U.S., they are fairly common exotic pets in Japan and the U.K. Sourcing information from those owners and some of the material available on owl husbandry online suggests that American owners largely overstate how 'difficult' they are to care for. Why is it that you think I couldn't distinguish abnormal behavior in my animals? That is standard care for all exotics, which tend to hide their illness. I'm also aware of Teflon, scented candles, heaters, self-cleaning ovens, ect. I have a bird (although we do use it and have had no issues). Falconers have this issue where they think most people are too stupid to care for birds, I don't get it.

I have provided references for every claim in this article, so I'm not making anything up.

Falconer/captive raptor breeder on December 21, 2019:

Unless you have personal hands on experience with owls, I would not being making this claim. Most of us who breed owls typically don’t sell our birds for pet ownership and most people do not now how to spot symptoms of illness of raptors because unlike most birds, it can take years to fully understand what’s typical for a raptor and what isn't. Most people don’t Know what Asper is which is a huge killer of birds of prey as well as how dangerous Teflon is around birds. Like I said before, you don’t have much of a say in wether these birds make good pets or not because you haven’t dealt with them. several falconers, rehabbers, and breeders tried to explain things in your last article but you refuse to listen. You simply do not have the hands on experience/knowledge of raptors to make that judgment.

Joseph Leclerc on November 29, 2019:

Owl be darned! I wasn,t aware that owls could be really tamed. Even the stories that the late Canadian writer Farley Mowat wrote about, he had 2 owls that were his pets. Wol brings dead skunks to the dinner table and terrorizes the minister, the postman, and the French teacher. Weeps is a comical bird, afraid of everything except Farley,s dog, Mutt, and he never does learn how to fly.

femi from Nigeria on November 28, 2019:

Several years ago we found a young owl at our backyard. we tried to remove it and it puffed up to twice its size a neat trick. eventually we got it safely to a green area.