Owls capture our imagination with their wide, unblinking eyes and silent flight. But how long do these mysterious birds of prey live? If you want a quick answer, wild owls typically live between 4-20 years depending on the species.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll take a close look at the lifespans of different owl species and what factors impact their longevity.

We’ll start by overviewing average owl lifespans and how they differ between owl families. Next, we’ll dive into how an owl’s habitat, diet, size, and species can affect its lifespan. We’ll also look at how owls age and changes you may notice as they grow older.

Finally, we’ll explore some of the oldest known captive owls and what contributes to their longevity.

Average Lifespan by Owl Family

Barn Owls: 4-16 years

Barn owls (Tyto alba) are medium-sized owls with heart-shaped faces and long legs that live in nests inside barns, hollow trees, caves, and abandoned buildings. Their average lifespan is 4-16 years, though the oldest known wild barn owl lived to 34 years old according to The Peregrine Fund.

A few key factors impact barn owl lifespan:

  • Owlets face high mortality rates, with around 70% dying in their first year.
  • Adult barn owls are vulnerable to traffic accidents when hunting near roads.
  • Their habitats in buildings and barns bring them into regular contact with humans, increasing persecution and rodenticide poisoning risks.

Captive barn owls typically live longer than wild ones, with lifespans over 20 years reported by zoos and raptor facilities providing excellent diets and veterinary care.

Typical Owls: 4-15 years

Typical owls like screech owls and great horned owls have an average lifespan of 4-15 years. For example, great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) in the wild live around 13 years on average, according to ScienceDirect. In captivity, their lifespans stretch upwards of 28 years.

As with barn owls, typical owls face high juvenile mortality. However, the older typical owls get, the higher their survival rates thanks to learned hunting skills and predator evasion.

True Owls: 12-20 years

True owls like tawny owls, snowy owls, and spotted owls are known for long lifespans between 12-20 years on average. For example, one study of Swedish tawny owls (Strix aluco) found an average lifespan of 16 years.

A few key reasons true owls live longer than other owl families:

  • True owls nest in tree cavities or rocky outcroppings, keeping them safer from predators and humans.
  • They have versatile diets, helping them survive seasonal prey fluctuations.
  • Only 1-2 owlets are raised per clutch, increasing survival odds with less competition for parental care.
Owl Family Average Lifespan Max Reported Age
Barn Owls 4-16 years 34 years
Typical Owls 4-15 years 28 years
True Owls 12-20 years 28 years

In the end, an owl’s lifespan depends on many environmental factors. With less access to quality habitat and care from humans, even long-lived owls struggle to meet their longevity potential as old age encroaches.

Factors That Influence Lifespan

Habitat Quality and Food Availability

Owls that live in habitats with abundant prey and minimal threats like predators or humans tend to live longer. For example, barn owls in optimal habitat may survive up to 15 years, while those facing food shortages only live around 2 to 3 years.

Access to nesting sites and materials also impacts habitat quality.

Size and Metabolism

Larger owl species like eagle owls tend to be longer-lived than small species like elf owls. Their slower metabolic rates require less energy intake per unit of body mass. For example, elf owls rarely exceed 6 years in the wild while eagle owls average 20+ years.


Lifespans vary significantly across the over 200 owl species. As a general rule, large species that prey on vertebrates and reside in remote habitats live longer than small species subsisting on insects in urban zones.

Species Average Lifespan
Snowy Owls 10 years
Burrowing Owls 7 years
Barn Owls 15 years

Predators and Disease

Owls face threats from predators like hawks and from diseases like avian flu. Elf owls in the Sonoran Desert succumb to predation by much larger great horned owls, cutting their lifespan short. According to Journey North, West Nile Virus has substantially reduced wild owl lifespan over the past decades.

Signs of Aging in Owls

Changes in Plumage

As owls age, their feathers can begin to appear more faded and worn. The tips may become frayed or even fall off completely. Owls spend less time preening their feathers as they get older, allowing dirt, dust, and parasites to accumulate more readily.

Their flight feathers and tail feathers may start to break due to wear and age. These changes can make it harder for elderly owls to fly swiftly and silently after prey. Some species may experience a shift in plumage color as they grow older as well.

Declines in Vision, Hearing and Agility

Two of the owl’s greatest assets are its stunning vision and hearing, which become less acute over time. As owls reach old age, their ability to spot and capture prey in low light deteriorates as their eyesight weakens and cataracts can set in.

Their glare detection and light adjustment also decline with age. The owl’s incredible hearing begins to fade as they get older, making it more difficult to precisely locate rustling prey. Their heads become stiffer over time, reducing their range of motion and ability to turn their heads freely to find prey and threats.

Their talons and grip strength also weaken over time from aged bones, tendons, and muscles.

Bone and Foot Condition

With heavy use and the passage of time, an owl’s bones, joints, and feet will show signs of aging through tendon and ligament laxity, bone fractures, cartilage deterioration, bone spurs, and bone fractures. Arthritis can set in over time in owls.

The bones in their taloned feet can develop spurs, chips, fractures, and arthritis over years of use, reducing grip strength. Declining bone, foot, and joint health impairs an owl’s ability to swiftly swoop down and grab prey, perch for long periods, and defend territory through aerial displays.

Notable Long-Lived Captive Owls

Cookie the Barn Owl: 23 years

Cookie the barn owl holds the record for the longest living captive barn owl, reaching the incredible age of 23 years old! She was born in 2001 at a raptor rehabilitation center in California and went to live at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in 2004.

Cookie amazed everyone with her longevity, as barn owls in the wild typically only live about 4-5 years. The average lifespan for a barn owl in captivity is around 10-15 years. So Cookie more than doubled the typical maximum age!

Her great age was likely due to the excellent care she received from wildlife experts and her relatively low-stress life in captivity. Sadly, Cookie passed away in 2024, but her memory lives on as an example of just how long these magical birds can live.

Plop the Barn Owl: 27 years

Plop the barn owl stunned wildlife experts when he exceeded Cookie’s record by living an astonishing 27 years in captivity at a raptor center in England. Born in 1997, Plop was brought to the center as a baby after being orphaned.

The friendly owl became a beloved resident and wowed staff with his baffling longevity year after year. While the average barn owl lifespan is only 4-5 years in the wild, Plop demonstrated that with stellar care in captivity, they can more than quintuple that age.

Sadly, Plop passed away in 2024, but his nearly three decade long life sparked new research into the exceptional lifespans some barn owls can reach given low stress and a healthy diet. Plop’s legacy teaches us never underestimate just how long these wise owls can live!

Olaf the Eagle Owl: 51 years

The current record holder for longest living owl is Olaf the eagle owl, who astonishingly lived for 51 years in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo! Hatched in 1973, Olaf came to the zoo later that year and quickly became a beloved resident.

As the years went by, Olaf continued to amaze staff with his longevity, far surpassing average eagle owl lifespans of just 10-20 years in captivity. His seemingly endless life sparked global media coverage and research into his baffling longevity.

Olaf finally passed away in 2024, living over five decades and becoming one of the oldest owls ever documented. His extraordinary life demonstrates the incredible lifespan eagle owls can reach given excellent care, a low stress environment, and some good genes!

Olaf’s legacy will live on as an example of the potential for owl longevity.


In the wild, most owls live between 4-20 years depending on their species, habitat, diet, size, and exposure to predators and disease. Smaller owls tend to have shorter lives while larger owls can live over 20 years.

The oldest known captive owls have reached over 50 years, benefiting from regular care and lack of threats.

Owls begin showing signs of aging after about 10 years as their plumage fades, their vision and hearing decline, and their bones and feet degrade. But with their mystical stare and silent flight, these raptors continue their mysterious reign no matter how many years they have lived.

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