Eurasian Eagle Owl

Eurasian Eagle Owl

Bubo bubo Order: Strigiformes Family: Strigidae (typical owls)

This species is the largest of the Eagle Owls, and largest owl in the world. 

Overview

This impressive bird is the largest species of owl in the world. Many facilities present this animal both on the glove or in free-flight shows, and it is a show-stopper in any situation. However, due to their size, behavioral traits, and training needs, this is a species only recommended for highly skilled, advanced animal handlers. It is important to note that Eurasian Eagle Owls are large and powerful birds, and, improperly handled, they could pose threat of injury to staff or guests. Handlers should always be aware of their individual owl’s preferences and comfort, and respond accordingly to avoid injuries. While many Eurasian Eagle Owls are comfortable on glove between multiple handlers, some individuals do demonstrate discrimination between handlers and are more suited to a limited number of handlers with whom they have a strong relationship. Additionally, it is highly recommended that they are hand-reared following the recommendations in the Eagle Owl Ambassador Animal Guideline. If, after all of these considerations, an Eagle Owl fits your facility’s needs, they can be a wonderful addition to an ambassador program. 

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

The vast majority of eagle-owls live in mainland Europe, Russia and Central Asia.

Longevity

This species can live well into their 60s under human care.

Ecosystem Role

Eagle owls are apex predators at the top of their food chain. They are particularly useful in keeping the number of rodents down in their various ecosystems. The removal of this species can cause the rodent population in a given area to grow significantly. Therefore, they may be a keystone predator. (Animal Diversity Web)

Husbandry Information 

Housing Requirements

Life Cycle Natural History Relevant Information

  • Nocturnal
  • Both sexes are usually solitary but they pair up during courtship. They advertise potential breeding sites by digging a shallow depression into the earth and emitting a light staccato note and various clucking sounds.They prefer to nest in crevices between rocks, sheltered cliff ledges, cave entrances, as well as abandoned nests of other large birds. (Animal Diversity Web)
  • Ambassador eagle-owls of both species have been successfully housed in both behind-the-scenes areas as well as in public view. 
  • Eurasian Eagle Owls are a temperate species that experience a large range of habitat types and temperature gradients.

Habitat 

  • The minimum requirements for housing two Eurasian Eagle Owls together is 6m x 3.9m x 3.7m (19.7 ft x 13.1 ft x 12.1 ft). 
  • The AZA Owl Care Manual states an acceptable enclosure size for a pair equals three to four times the wingspan of a bird in all dimensions. 
    • Owls that are utilized in ambassador programs may be housed individually in mews, which are smaller than exhibits for breeding birds. 
    • Mew size for ambassador birds is recommended to be a minimum of 2x the wingspan (length) by 2x the wingspan (width). 
    • It is recommended ambassador eagle-owls are housed in enclosures that are no less than 2.4m (8ft) in height. Ergo, approximate minimum housing dimensions for a single ambassador eagle-owl would be 3m x 3m x 2.4m (10ft x 10ft x 8ft). 
  • It is recommended the enclosure be constructed with materials that reduce the possibility of damage to the feathers or to the owl itself (for example, bare wire mesh is less desirable than vertical bars or coated mesh
  • Most enclosures offer some sort of nest box, but only some owls seem to use the box provided.
  • Providing choices for eagle-owls is a recommended best practice for exhibit design, and exhibits should provide a variety of opportunities for owls to shield themselves from rain/poor weather and exposure to light/natural light. 
  • There is no clear perching preference for eagle-owls as they appear to use high, medium, and low perching.
    • In order to prevent damage to flight and tail feathers, perch placement should be mindful of tight corners or other locations where the owl might rub/bump its tail/wings and thereby damage their feathers. 
    • It is recommended the enclosure be constructed with materials that reduce the possibility of damage to the feathers or to the owl itself (for example, bare wire mesh is less desirable than vertical bars or coated mesh).

Temperature, Humidity, Light Cycles 

  • Temperature:  temperature restrictions for eagle-owls of either species depend on the environment to which they are acclimated and the policies of the institution’s management team. There should be additional environmental considerations when transporting and using the animal for programs.
    • Ideal temperature range for Eurasian Eagle Owls is 0–29.4 °C (32–85 °F). 
      • In temperatures below freezing, some institutions choose to provide supplemental heat, most typically overhead radiant heaters or heat lamps. 
    • Fans, misters, and ice blocks are all recommended in temperatures above 29.4 °C (85 °F) or when the bird is open-mouth breathing/panting or drooping wings. 
    • Extra care should be considered for elderly birds who may have a lower cold or heat tolerance. 
    • Care should also be taken to not expose the owls to direct sunlight for extended periods of time.
  • Humidity:
  • Light: Exhibits should provide a variety of opportunities for owls to shield themselves from rain/poor weather and exposure to light/natural light. 

Substrate

  • It is recommended that ambassador eagle-owls be housed on varied natural substrate, such as grass, dirt, or pea gravel. 

Other General Housing Requirements or Management information

  • Perching: perching of varied location, stability (swinging perches, some with give/bounce, or fully stable), texture (ex. natural bark, Monsanto or Astroturf covered, rope-wrapped), and diameter – anywhere from 5-13 cm (2-5 in.). 
    • To maximize foot health, perches should be regularly maintained and changed out when showing signs of wear. 
    • There is no clear perching preference for eagle-owls as they appear to use high, medium, and low perching. 
    •  In order to prevent damage to flight and tail feathers, perch placement should be mindful of tight corners or other locations where the owl might rub/bump its tail/wings and thereby damage their feathers. 
    • Care should be taken to place perches and other objects in locations that mitigate chance of collision injury and/or deterioration of flight and tail feathers on enclosure materials. 
    • Stumps, platforms, and grass locations are other forms of perching used by eagle-owls. 
  • It is important to provide bathing options for eagle-owls. Enclosures should contain a bath pan of minimum dimensions necessary to allow the individual to submerge and bath freely without bumping its wings on the sides of the pan. Bath pans should be kept full, to within one inch of the top, for easy bathing access. 
    • It is also appropriate to provide misters in enclosures, particularly in hotter climates.

Diet Requirements 

Diet in the Wild 

  • Wild eagle-owls are predatory, obligate carnivores with a generalist diet that varies throughout their range and includes both mammalian and avian prey items. Invertebrates, reptiles, and fish are also eaten opportunistically, though mammals make up the majority of their diet. 

Diet under human care 

  • From the Eagle Owl AAG: Typical whole prey diet items can include mouse, rat, rabbit, day-old chick, quail, fish, and commercially-made bird of prey diet. Note that chicks and fish are less nutritionally valuable than whole adult prey, such as mouse, rat, rabbit, and quail. A healthy diet should include a variety of prey items. 
    • When feeding previously frozen food items, it is recommended to include a vitamin supplement, such as Vitahawk, to compensate for potential loss of vitamins during the freeze/thaw process. 
    • If/when feeding items that are not whole prey (i.e. just the muscle meat), it is also recommended to dust with calcium supplement. 
  • From the Eagle Owl AAG: Diet amounts and food presentation may vary depending on the bird, but should be mindful of the appropriate weights and body condition scores of this species as well as the individual ambassador. See the full Eagle Owl AAG for more detail on diets and appetite management. 
  • From the Eagle Owl AAG: When feeding previously frozen food items, it is recommended to include a vitamin supplement, such as Vitahawk, to compensate for potential loss of vitamins during the freeze/thaw process. If/when feeding items that are not whole prey (i.e. just the muscle meat), it is also recommended to dust with calcium supplement. 

Veterinary Concerns 

  • Eurasian Eagle Owls have feathered legs, making choices for falconry equipment particularly important. Proper care and maintenance must be taken when using permanent anklets (or traditional jesses left in place permanently), and legs should be regularly checked for ingrown feather follicles. 

Enrichment & Training 

Enrichment 

Behavioral Relevant Information

  • Eagle-owls benefit from hunting opportunities and exploring novel items. 
  • The most successful environmental enrichment devices appear to be items that can be footed and shredded.

Environmental Enrichment 

  • Perches wrapped in different materials, in different locations. (see perching, above)
  • From the Eagle Owl AAG: Manipulating the environment, including changing out perching, rotating birds in mews, the addition of live plants/browse, water or dust pans, and misting can all provide an enriching environment for owls. 

(EEOW “Carson” interacting with enrichment. Photo credit to Tara Baumgardner at the Virginia Zoo)

Behavioral Enrichment 

  • From the Eagle Owl AAG: The most successful environmental enrichment devices appear to be items that can be footed and shredded, such as paper products, cardboard boxes, lettuce, melons, squash or other produce. These items can be provided alone or stuffed with prey or diet, although owls should be monitored for ingestion of foreign objects if food is delivered with a novel item. Other successful items include tennis balls, holl-ee rollers, and canvas dog toys, which present opportunities for seizing, grabbing, mock “killing,” and mantling.
  • Training for shows or public interactions is a form of enrichment and provides an opportunity for the bird to engage in both cognitive and physical activity. Training with opportunities to free fly or otherwise voluntarily participate provide owls with the ability to get additional exercise and conditioning. 

Schedule

  • It is recommended that animal care staff and management personnel work together to develop enrichment protocols addressing considerations such as frequency of presentation, duration of use, variety of opportunities, record keeping, and safety.

Other Enrichment Resources

Training

Behaviors Trained 

  • From the Eagle Owl AAG: To maximize lifelong welfare, it is recommended to hand-rear owls slated to become ambassadors in order to appropriately condition them to close contact with humans and a variety of other stimuli that could otherwise be intimidating or inducive of stress if the individual is not used to them. Hand-rearing should occur during the formative stage of life, within the first few months of hatching. Hand-rearing owls at this stage allow for human caretakers to expose the owl to a variety of conditions (Figure 1.10) it may encounter as an ambassador (crowds, vehicles, buildings, novel noises, etc.). Hand-rearing generally helps owls adapt to human care and their roles as ambassadors better than owls who are raised by their parents. Human-reared owls appear to display more comfort behaviors while in the presence of humans, such as rousing, feeding in the presence of people, interacting with enrichment, participating in training, and generally lacking escape/avoidance behaviors and aggression. 
    • A few behavioral challenges have been observed when training and desensitizing ambassador eagle owls. A common challenge is getting owls comfortable around objects with wheels – wheelchairs, strollers, carts, wagons, etc. Owls will often try to fly off or away from the object. This challenge can be avoided by being especially mindful of exposing young owls to this particular stimulus during its first few weeks/months of life
  • From the Eagle Owl AAG: Several common behaviors trained include: scale, crate, step up onto a perch/glove, standing calmly on glove/perch for presentations, stationing, and free flight. Many institutions choose to train voluntary behaviors for husbandry and medical management such as voluntary tactile, voluntary nail trims, and voluntary insertion/removal of jesses. It is important to note, for safety reasons, procedures such as coping and blood-draws should not be attempted as voluntary trained behaviors, as the risk of injury to the bird in such cases is great.

EEOW “Mr. Miyagi” on scale

Photo courtesy of Audubon Zoo

  • Equipment: Any time jesses and anklets are employed with eagle-owls, trainers should be mindful of their use as a safety tool and not as a means of restraint or as a training tool. When falconry equipment is used to restrict the bird’s ability to leave the glove as a means to escape aversive stimuli, it is considered negative reinforcement and positive punishment. These particular methods of training are unsuitable for this species and have demonstrated negative consequences including escape/avoidance, apathy, aggression, and phobias. Current trends include working owls completely without jesses or not holding onto jesses during programs, which requires a much higher level of training and staff competency. Best practices for presentation should strive for owls voluntarily participating in programs using trained behaviors to stand calmly and comfortably on a glove or perch without employing restraint, with or without falconry equipment, or training birds to be presented fully free-flight.
    • Permanent or removable anklets can be used, depending on a variety of factors – including the individual bird’s preferences, the wear on their leg feathers, or the particular training program the owl participates in. The material that is most popular for an anklet is kangaroo leather, but other institutions also use bison leather and biothane. Biothane is a high-quality strapping material used for a variety of applications and is becoming increasingly more popular with falconers. Should a facility use removable equipment (anklets or jess/anklet combos) on their birds, it is recommended that a training program be put into place to reduce stress and maximize cooperation when putting on and taking off equipment. 
    • Jesses can be used either connected to a paracord leash (with a swivel or with a swivel-less setup) or simply held during demonstrations – the latter is only recommended for birds that are highly trained for recall or free-flight and who are used to doing presentations on a glove with minimal equipment. 
      • Careful consideration should be taken when using jesses on eagle-owls during flight displays due to the risk of entanglement should the bird fly off, and it is recommended to either remove the jesses before flight or use flying jesses. 
      • The most popular choice of material for jesses is paracord, although leather is also used. 
    • When flying birds are outside for shows or educational programming, leg mounts, backpacks, and tail mounts have also been used to attach telemetry in situations where it might be needed.

Reinforcers used & schedule of reinforcement 

  • From the Eagle Owl AAG: Food is often used as a primary reinforcer, and can be an essential tool for shaping the behavior of owls housed in zoos. Most zoos and aquariums use a portion of the owl’s diet for training. 

Other 

Social Housing/Colony Management 

  • In their natural environment, Eurasian Eagle Owls are one of few species of owls that remain together even during the non-breeding season. In zoological facilities, breeding pairs given adequate space may be co-housed. Additional individuals may be co-housed with a breeding pair on a case-by-case basis. They should be monitored closely, as breeding pairs can be territorial.

Colony or Breeding Management 

  • Ambassador owls can be allowed to breed, and can participate in educational programming outside of their breeding season. It should be noted that some individuals may still demonstrate a change in behavior during the breeding season even if they are not participating in a breeding program. Participation in programming during breeding season should be treated as any other programming time and remain voluntary for participation.

Individual Identification 

Programmatic Information 

Messaging Themes 

  • Taxon information 
    • Owls are important predators that help to control pest populations and reduce the spread of disease. They fulfil an important role in their ecosystem, as many of them function as apex predators or at very high trophic levels. 
    • There are many myths and misperceptions about owls, for example, the idea that they are bad omens. In fact, owls are remarkable animals that are important to their ecosystems and should inspire wonder and curiosity! 
  • Animals in human care 
    • Presenters should discuss the importance of training, proper handling methods, and the dedicated work put in to building relationships to ensure the birds are comfortable. 
    • ‘It is important to stress the difference between wild bird behaviors versus those under human care, which also provides an opportunity to discuss life history traits. 
    • Owls seen in many zoos and aquariums as ambassadors on glove or in flight may give the impression to guests that they can be good pets, which they are not. They require skilled handlers and highly specific housing and care needs that the average person cannot accommodate in their homes. It should be stressed to guests that the calm, collected owl in front of them is the result of most likely hundreds of hours of training and relationship building, as well as benefits from the management by skilled and experienced staff.

Threats and Conservation Status

  • Conservation action: Wild owl populations face a multitude of threats; fortunately, there are a number of individual and community-level actions that people can take to help to protect owls in the wild.

Interesting Natural History Information

Did you know…

Handling & Presentation Tips 

  • From the Eagle Owl AAG: Ambassador eagle-owls can be presented both on and off-grounds in formal (captive audience) and informal (casual walk-by programs, chats or displays) programs. They are successfully presented both indoors and outdoors, on a glove, perch, or in a free-flight program with proper training and attention to the safety. Free-flight programs in particular afford larger audiences the opportunity to see this large bird in action, making them a popular addition to amphitheater-style shows. However, audience size should be considered for each bird, as well as presentation style (free flight vs on glove), as different audience sizes, proximity, and volume of venue may affect specific individuals differently. 

Use Guidelines 

  • From the Eagle Owl AAG:Consideration should be given as to appropriate times for handling ambassador animals during presentations, and rest breaks scheduled accordingly. Program handlers should maintain the animal’s basic husbandry needs and a medical protocol should be in place in case concerns arise. 
    • Most eagle-owls appear comfortable participating on glove up to 30 minutes, some up to one hour. Many institutions have been successful working with ambassador eagle-owls regularly for to 2-4 hours per day, with rest periods in between programs. 
    • Many eagle-owls travel well, and overnight outreaches are acceptable as long as the owl’s basic husbandry needs are addressed and a medical protocol is in place in case of concerns. Accommodations of bringing a diet and water should be made for long-distance travel.

Public Contact and Interaction Guidelines 

  • It is not recommended to allow public contact with ambassador eagle-owls, in the form of direct contact, such as petting or feeding the owl. However, some facilities do allow members of the public to hold eagle owls on a glove. 

Transportation Tips 

  • From the Eagle Owl AAG: When transporting either owl species from site to site, it is recommended to use a vehicle if temperatures are under 0°C (32°F) or above 29.4°C (85 °F). Air conditioning can be used in the summer, but vehicles should be carefully heated in the winter to prevent overheating. If the program takes place in an area without temperature regulation, logistics and potential risks should be discussed with the animal management team. Options for altering the physical environment (shade, portable heat, ice blocks, battery operated crate fans) can sometimes be utilized to maintain the safety and comfort of the owl. 

Crating Techniques 

  • From the Eagle Owl AAG: Ambassador eagle-owls can be trained to voluntarily enter/exit a transport carrier, to “step up” and be placed into the carrier by their handler, or voluntarily enter/exit their enclosure for a free-flight show. Deciding which method to use will depend on the bird, the program needs, and the equipment available. Operant conditioning training techniques should be utilized to condition birds to enter and exit the enclosure and/or transport crate. Birds naive to a transport crate should be trained using approximations and desensitization with positive reinforcement, i.e. reinforce the owl for stepping towards the crate, stepping into it, duration of staying inside, closing and opening the door, allowing small movements of the crate, etc. The bird should not be forced into a crate, but rather their choice to enter reinforced and their choice to exit respected.

  • Some owls may prefer to be in covered kennels, while others may do better in crates with the option to see out of their crate via windows or door. Crates with fenced “windows” or doors may be covered to promote calm behavior during transport (Figure 2.2). In general, it is most typical to cover the sides and door with a towel, burlap, or other breathable fabric that can be loosely tossed over the crate to give the bird a sheltered environment, or other permanent modifications can be made to the crate. Crate openings or fencing can also be modified with corrugated plastic and secured with zip ties or nuts and bolts 
  • To transport an ambassador owl in a crate, there are a few variations of crate setup and furnishings that can optimize comfort for the bird. Two primary options are available for crates – a crate with a perch, and a perch-less crate. Depending on the bird, they may prefer to ride flat on the floor of the crate rather than on a perch. Perches should be installed parallel to the door and should be high enough so that the bird’s tail will not be damaged by coming into contact with the floor, but low enough that the bird is not crouching when inside. Providing a substrate of indoor-outdoor carpet or AstroTurf will give a perch-less crate some traction during transport and is a good option even for perched crates. If perching is used, it should be of appropriate thickness so the bird can perch securely and can be natural wood or wrapped with AstroTurf, depending on the individual bird’s preference.

Temperature Guidelines 

  • From the Eagle Owl AAG: Eurasian Eagle Owls are a species that’s adapted to colder climates. Low temperatures, even under 0°C (32°F) are not a typical concern for this species – but high temperatures, over 35°C (95°F) can be.
    • When working with eagle owls in warmer temperatures, special attention should be paid to the comfort of the owl during programs and particularly if/when transporting in a crate. During programming, whether on glove or in free-flight, owls should be monitored for observable signs of temperature discomfort, such as open-mouth breathing and drooping wings. 
    • If the owl is showing signs of heat stress (gular fluttering, etc.) or the heat index is above 37.7°C (100°F), it is recommended that your owl not be included in that programming. If the heat index is at 35°C (95°F) or above, it is recommended that the owl be out for 15 minutes or less.
  • Temperatures for indoor presentations should be considered in the winter months for both transportation and presentation space. Time spent indoors in the winter should be minimized to prevent overheating, especially for birds that are housed outdoors.

Acquisition Information

This species is managed as an SSP, therefore acquisitions should be cleared through the program leader. The program leader is Ashley Graham, Smithsonian Zoo. 

Resources 

Contributors and Citations 

Photo Credits: 

Dallas Zoo, San Francisco Zoo, Virginia Zoo, Cascades Raptor Center, Audubon Zoo