Are Pet Owls a Good Idea?

Of all the creatures of the animal kingdom, owls are undoubtedly among the most majestic. For centuries, owls have been revered for their unmatched hunting prowess and adaptability. They have become timeless symbols of wisdom, strength, and beauty. One look into their knowing eyes seems to suggest that they’re guardians of great secrets.

With such an enchanting backdrop, it isn’t hard to understand why someone might be interested in having one as a companion. But do owls make good pets? The short answer is no, at least not for the average person. Yet, you may still find yourself intrigued and want to explore the possibility anyway.

rufous legged owl
Rufous Legged Owl

Owls are high-maintenance animals with a laundry list of needs. Looking after them is frankly too much work for an average pet owner. Generally, only highly-trained wildlife experts are owl-keepers.

But, let’s suppose you’re willing to do your homework and commit to taking on the considerable responsibility that comes with cleaning, feeding, and general care of a pet owl. If that’s the case, you may find owning a pet owl to be a uniquely rewarding experience.

Is it Legal to Have a Pet Owl?

The legality of keeping owls as pets in the U.S. is something of a murky subject. You’ll find a plethora of online sources insisting that it’s illegal to own an owl under any circumstances. You’ll also find just as many sites claiming there’s little or even no red tape standing in your way. So which is it? Both assertions are technically accurate, only with a critical distinction.

It’s true that owning native species of owls and other raptors (birds of prey) in the U.S. as a private individual is a violation of federal law. The only time private citizens may be granted possession of native owl species is to acquire government permits.

Such permits allow them to work with the animals for rehabilitation, breeding, or educational purposes. Still, owls remain under the strict protection and watchful eye of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

That said, it’s often perfectly legal to own a non-native species of owl, even if it’s not for any of the reasons mentioned above. Whether or not that “often” applies to you depends on where you live.

Different states have different laws concerning the sale and ownership of various animals. In some states, getting your own pet owl is as simple as going out and buying one. In others, it may be necessary to apply for a special permit to house the animal on your property, primarily if owls are classified as “exotic” animals in your state.

Little Owl in the wild
A Little Owl in the wild.

Are Pet Owls Legal in My State?

The easiest way to determine whether your state’s laws will let you keep an owl as a pet is to visit your local fish and game department or their website. You can try searching “are owls legal in my state”. No matter what, you will no doubt need to sort through a lot of information to get the info you need.

Most sites offer the same basic information, and there’s plenty of information available. Start with your state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife or a trusted non-profit organization like the International Owl Center.

If obtaining a license or permit is a prerequisite for ownership where you live, try visiting the Fish and Wildlife section of your state government’s website for information on obtaining what you need.

Can Pet Owls Be Dangerous?

Owls are natural hunters. As birds of prey, their most valuable physical assets are razor-sharp beaks and talons, which they’re quick to use. If you’re thinking about keeping an owl as a pet, know that these characteristics could pose a risk to you, other animals, or people you have living with you.

Most owls aren’t accustomed to being near humans and may display aggression or lash out if they feel threatened. It may not be common for pet owls to attack humans, but it has been known to happen, and such an attack could result in lacerations, gouges, or other, perhaps more serious injuries. An owl’s lethal beak and talons are sharp enough to produce accidental cuts and scratches, even with simple routine handling.

Rodents and other small mammals are an owl’s primary and preferred diet. It’s not a good idea to bring an owl into your home if you also happen to keep mice, rabbits, gerbils, guinea pigs, ferrets, or chinchillas. Frogs, lizards, snakes, fish, and domestic birds will also be in danger by an owl on the hunt. Simply put, your beloved mouse is nothing more than a quick meal for an owl.

It is crucial to keep owls and their prey safely separated (in different buildings) at all times.

Different Types of Owls You Can Have as a Pet

As mentioned previously, only non-native species of owls can be bought, sold, and traded lawfully within the U.S.

If you’re afraid that this might diminish your options, don’t worry. You still have dozens, if not hundreds of species to choose from. The number of owl species native to the U.S. only accounts for about one-tenth of the total number of species found worldwide.

By far, the most common species of owls owned in the U.S. are the Eurasian eagle-owl and the speckled owl, both of which are large, powerful, and impressive-looking. The fact that these species exist in such plentiful numbers throughout the world means that you won’t be contributing to their endangerment by keeping one.

north american barn owl
North American Barn Owl

It might also be possible to find somewhat rarer species available for purchase, trade, or adoption, but this will depend mainly on where you’re located. Examples of other common kinds of owls you can own include:

  • Barn Owl (except for the North American Barn Owl)
  • Rufous Owl
  • Little Owl

How to Get a Pet Owl

If you live in a low or lower-regulation state, your best bet is to look for local owl-loving pet owners. From time to time, they are looking to sell or re-home one or more pet owls. Resources like Facebook, Craigslist, and forums can help track down bird enthusiasts in your area. It’s time well spent getting yourself connected to others who are like-minded.

There are several benefits to this approach for purchasing an owl. First, you won’t have to go far to meet the current owner and transport the animal back home. Secondly, you’ll have an opportunity to ask the owner any questions you might have before taking charge. In many cases, the previous owner will be able to offer valuable advice, guidance, and materials relating to the care of the particular species you’ll be getting.

While it may be tempting to buy an owl from a commercial dealer specializing in rare birds and other exotic animals, it isn’t recommended. These vendors sometimes engage in dubious and unethical, if not downright illegal practices when it comes to the procurement and treatment of the animals they sell. By purchasing an owl from an exotic animal dealer, you’ll only be adding to the demand that keeps them in business.

Pet Owl Care: Reality Check

Taking care of an owl isn’t like taking care of more ordinary types of pets. It’s a round-the-clock job that requires constant attention and involves many time-consuming, labor-intensive, and often unpleasant tasks. Ignoring or putting off these tasks isn’t an option if you want your pet owl to be happy and well-provided-for.

General care can be broadly divided into three main categories: cleaning, feeding, and exercise/playtime. More specifically, owls need clean, hygienic living conditions, a steady supply of whole animals to eat, and plenty of space to move around.

Cleaning up After an Owl

There are no two ways about it—owls are messy creatures. An average day for its caregiver consists of constantly picking things up, wiping things down, and sanitizing everything in sight. And that’s just during downtime!

Owls constantly molt to make room for new feathers. You can expect to find feathers of all sizes strewn about your pet’s living area at any given time. By some estimates, a single owl can shed many thousands of feathers in a single year.

Owl Pellets and Other Discarded Material

Another charming behavior that owl owners have to look forward to is disposing of pellets. Within just a few hours of devouring a critter, owls regurgitate solid masses of undigested organic matter. These contain all the bits they’re incapable of digesting, like bones, fur, feathers, and teeth. Picking up owl pellets probably won’t be an enjoyable chore for you if you’re at all squeamish.

And then there’s the poop. Owls void their bowels regularly, just like other birds, but about once a day, they also empty out their ceca, a pair of pouches located near the ends of their intestines. When this happens, they release a dark, runny, foul-smelling liquid that taints the air with its odor. They can easily stain wood, fabrics, or any other surfaces it happens to come into contact with.

little owl on a fence
Little Owl captured by a camera standing on a fence

What Do Pet Owls Eat?

Feeding is often one aspect of care that makes would-be owl owners reconsider their fantasies. As predator birds, owls have very particular dietary needs. You can’t just toss them an extra rib from your barbecue plate. Mealtime is a little more than filling a feeder or cracking open a can of owl food.

Instead, you’ll need to keep your refrigerator or freezer stocked with whole prey animals like mice, rats, chicks, rabbits, squirrels and pocket gophers. Baby owls don’t tend to eat more than a few grams of food per feeding, but most adults can put away somewhere between 10% and 30% of their own body weight daily.

To prepare for its daily feeding, you’ll take out feed animals and allow them to thaw before manually removing each one’s stomach, intestines, and other internal organs. Otherwise, your owl will discard them wherever it sees fit. Yeah, you’ll do it for the sake of your owl. Don’t worry, though. Over time, it’ll get easier.

And since owls have a habit of stashing away uneaten food for later, dinner doesn’t officially end until you’ve gone around to collect the scraps and put them back into storage.

Pet Tawny Owl

How Much Space Does My Owl Really Need?

Owls need far more “real estate” than other captive birds to live comfortably. Raptors are used to flying freely in daily activities like hunting and mating. They will suffer to some degree when kept in cages or tight spaces.

For this reason, pet owls should be housed in large aviaries or similar enclosures. They need ample room to wander, explore, and seek solitude when they’re feeling antisocial. Even better would be a fully enclosed outdoor area that more closely resembles the animal’s familiar natural habitat.

Taking the necessary steps to modify your home or surrounding property and make it more hospitable for your pet owl could prove to be a costly project. This is yet another essential factor to keep in mind if you’re not yet sure whether owning an owl would be right for you.

Under no circumstance should you keep an owl as a pet unless you’re willing and able to set aside a suitable amount of space for it to live in. Keeping owls cooped up in close quarters is not only inhumane but could also agitate the owl and make it more prone to health issues or aggressive behavior.

horned owl in the wild
Horned Owl in the wild

In Conclusion

Owls are magnificent animals that inspire respect and awe in all who observe them, but there’s a reason you don’t frequently see them as pets.

Thanks in large part to their noble, statuesque appearance, it’s easy to forget that owls are born hunters that are driven by instinct and call whole forests home. When it comes down to it, they’re just too dangerous, too temperamental, too demanding, and too precious for most people to justify making one a pet. It has to go beyond simple curiosity or amusement.

Unless you’re devoted and willing to go the extra mile, it’s best to leave owls to nature and the care of trained professionals who are up to the challenge of meeting their many needs. It’s a requirement to ensure that your new pet owl enjoys a life of freedom, comfort, and safety.

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