Don’t Feed That Owl!

by Bren Lundborg
Wildlife Keeper

In the midst of an early March snowstorm, we received yet another bird that many of you have probably been seeing in high numbers: a Barred Owl. While they are normally a common patient of ours, this winter we have been receiving greater numbers than usual coming in for treatment (as I write this, we have 15 in care).

A Barred Owl just arrived for treatment at VINS.

This particular owl showed up with what was becoming an increasingly common condition : it was emaciated, weak and had lost around a third of its body weight. We did a quick exam, found it was dehydrated and hypothermic, and placed it in an enclosure to warm before starting fluid and nutritional support. As I saw the owl’s rescuer out to their car, another person pulled up, with another owl, and another emaciation case.

There are probably multiple factors to explain the number of struggling Barred Owls that have been seen near roads, houses, and bird feeders, but a big one is the weather. The deep snow, in combination with periods of warm and cold weather, have led to hard layers of packed snow and ice that the owls cannot punch through to catch their rodent prey. Many of the struggling owls are first year birds, for whom winter is always a tough time, but have even more difficulties when the weather is uncooperative. This has led many to move closer to human habitats in search of more plentiful rodents near buildings or bird feeders.

When seeing these owls hunting around your home in broad daylight, stalking your feeders where they never have before, it is tempting for many to offer them food to help them along. Although I know this may be a tough statement to accept, it is never a good idea to feed wild owls.

There are a number of reasons for this. Barred Owls have evolved to hunt and survive for the winter, and though it seems like many are faring poorly, there are many more who are doing alright. Deep wooded territories that humans rarely see can be held by successful Barred Owls, who are doing very well for themselves.

This patient has graduated to solid food after days of intensive care.

In addition, owls, especially young owls, tend to habituate quickly to human presence and feeding. This may lead to birds causing issues with pets and livestock. Though it is unlikely they will actually go after your cat or poultry, we do receive many calls from people concerned about owls stalking their chickens and ducks. A more common problem with habituation is that these owls are more likely to hunt near roads. Vehicle collisions are another one of the most common injuries that we see in Barred Owl patients, who present with fractures, head trauma and eye damage.

If you find an owl that cannot fly, it is even more important that you don’t feed it. Feeding an emaciated owl too much solid food before it is properly warmed and hydrated can kill it. In fact, it can take 7-10 days of supportive care before an emaciated bird is even able to safely consume a fully solid diet. For context, imagine the shape a healthy 150 pound person would be in if they suddenly lost 50 pounds.

The little things we anticipate showing up in spring!

Upon finding an injured or weak owl (or any bird), calling a wildlife rehabilitator for advice is the best option. VINS wildlife rehabilitators can be reached during our open hours at 802-359-5001 x212. If no one is available to talk, gently coaxing the bird into a box or pet carrier with a towel or broom, or using the towel to wrap them up and place them in a box or carrier is the next best thing. Even when very weak, they will use their talons to defend themselves, so we recommend wearing thick gloves. We also cannot stress enough the importance of keeping yourself safe, particularly if you find a bird near a busy roadway.  Until you are able to get in contact with a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, keep the bird in a warm, dark place without food or water and minimize interaction with people or pets.

In the meantime, spring is approaching, soon the snow will melt, and before long the next generation of Barred Owls will be learning the ways of the forest. If you find an owl you think needs help, don’t feed it; please reach out and ask for our advice. We are here to help!

Please consider donating to help us take care of these owls. Thank you!


  1. Unknown on March 19, 2019 at 12:30 pm

    Bren, great article. Do you ever do talks in the community? My residents at Ave Maria Community Care Home are looking for some stimulating programs. I think they would love to hear about the owls.

  2. VINS on March 19, 2019 at 12:31 pm

    Hi Carol! Please email to arrange a program for your community.

  3. Katharine Britton on March 30, 2019 at 6:06 pm

    Enjoyed your article, Bren.

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