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Hailed for their supposed wisdom and their appetite for pesky rodents but derided as pests and subjects of superstition, owls (families Tytonidae and Strigidae) have had a love/hate relationship with humans since the beginning of recorded history. There are over 200 species of owls, and they might date back to the days of dinosaurs.

Fast Facts: Owls

  • Scientific Name: Tytonidae, Strigidae
  • Common Names: Barn and bay owls, true owls
  • Basic Animal Group: Bird
  • Size: Wingspans from 13–52 inches
  • Weight: 1.4 ounces to 4 pounds
  • Lifespan: 1–30 years
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Habitat: Every continent except Antarctica, most environments
  • Conservation Status: Most owls are listed as Least Concerned, but a few are Endangered or Critically Endangered.


There are about 216 species of owls divided into two families: Barn and Bay owls (Tytonidae) and the Strigidae (true owls). Most owls belong to the group of so-called true owls, with large heads and round faces, short tails, and muted feathers with mottled patterns. The remaining dozen-plus species are barn owls, which have heart-shaped faces, long legs with powerful talons, and moderate size. Except for the common barn owl, which is found worldwide, the most familiar owls in North America and Eurasia are the true owls.

More than half of the owls in the world live in the neotropics and sub-Saharan Africa, and only 19 species reside in the United States and Canada.

One of the most remarkable things about owls is that they move their entire heads when looking at something rather than moving their eyes, like most other vertebrates. Owls need large, forward-facing eyes to gather scarce light during their nocturnal hunts, and evolution couldn’t spare the musculature to allow these eyes to rotate. Some owls have astonishingly flexible necks that let them turn their heads three-quarters of a circle, or 270 degrees, compared to 90 degrees for the average human being.

The tawny owl is just one of the more than 225 owl species in the world.
Nick Jewell/Flickr/CC by 2.0

Habitat and Distribution

Owls are found on every continent except Antarctica, and they also inhabit many remote island groups including the Hawaiian islands. Their preferred habitats vary from species to species but include everything from arctic tundra to marshlands, deciduous and conifer forests, deserts and agricultural fields, and beaches.

Diet and Behavior

Owls swallow their prey—insects, small mammals and reptiles, and other birds—whole without biting or chewing. Most of the unfortunate animal is digested, but the parts that can’t be broken down—such as bones, fur, and feathers—are regurgitated as a hard lump, called a «pellet,» a few hours after the owl’s meal. By examining these pellets, researchers can identify what a given owl has been eating and when. (Baby owls don’t produce pellets since their parents feed them soft, regurgitated food in the nest.)

Although other carnivorous birds, such as hawks and eagles, hunt during the day, most owls hunt at night. Their dark colors make them nearly invisible to their prey and their wings beat almost silently. These adaptations, combined with their enormous eyes, put owls among the most efficient night hunters on the planet.

As befitting birds that hunt and kill small prey, owls have some of the strongest talons in the avian kingdom, capable of seizing and grasping squirrels, rabbits, and other squirmy mammals. One of the largest owl species, the five-pound great horned owl, can curl its talons with a force of 300 pounds per square inch, roughly comparable to the strongest human bite. Some unusually large owls have talons comparable in size to those of much bigger eagles, which may explain why even desperately hungry eagles usually won’t attack their smaller cousins.

In popular culture, owls are invariably depicted as extremely intelligent, but it’s virtually impossible to train an owl, while parrots, hawks, ​and pigeons can be taught to retrieve objects and memorize simple tasks. People think owls are smart for the same reason they think kids who wear glasses are smart: Bigger-than-usual eyes convey the impression of high intelligence. This doesn’t mean owls are especially dumb, either; they need lots of brain power to hunt at night.

Reproduction and Offspring

Owl mating rituals involve dual hooting, and once paired, a single male and female will remain together through the breeding season. Some species stay together for an entire year; others remain paired for life. They don’t typically build their own nests, instead, they take over nests abandoned by other creatures. Owls can be aggressively territorial, especially during the breeding season.

Mother owls lay between one and 11 eggs over a few days period, with an average of five or six. Once laid, she does not leave the nest until the eggs hatch, some 24–32 days later, and, although the male feeds her, she does tend to lose weight over that period. The chicks hack themselves out of the egg with an egg-tooth and leave the nest (fledge) after 3–4 weeks.

No one is sure why, on average, female owls are slightly larger than males. One theory is that smaller males are more agile and therefore more suited to catching prey,​ while females brood young. Another is that because females don’t like to leave their eggs, they need a larger body mass to sustain them for long periods without eating. A third theory is less likely but more amusing: Since female owls often attack and drive off unsuitable males during mating season, the smaller size and greater agility of males prevent them from getting hurt.

 CGander Photography/Getty Images

Evolutionary History

It’s difficult to trace the evolutionary origins of owls, much less their apparent kinship with contemporary nightjars, falcons, and eagles. Owl-like birds such as Berruornis and Ogygoptynx lived 60 million years ago during the Paleocene epoch, which means it is possible that the ancestors of owls coexisted with dinosaurs toward the end of the Cretaceous period. The strigid family of owls broke off from tyronids and first appeared in the Miocene epoch (23–5 million years ago).

Owls are one of the most ancient terrestrial birds, rivaled only by the game birds (e.g., chickens, turkeys, and pheasants) of the order Galliformes.

Conservation Status

Most of the species in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are listed as Least Concern, but a few are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered, such as the Forest Owlet (Heteroglaux blewitti) in India; the Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus) in North America, Asia, and Europe; and the Siau Scops-Owl (Otus siaoensis), on a single island in Indonesia. Ongoing threats to owls are hunters, climate change and habitat loss.

Owls and Humans

It isn’t a good idea to keep owls as pets, and not just because that’s illegal in the U.S. and most other countries. Owls eat only fresh food, requiring a constant supply of mice, gerbils, rabbits, and other small mammals. Also, their beaks and talons are very sharp, so you’d also need a stock of bandages. If that weren’t enough, an owl can live for more than 30 years, so you’d be donning your industrial-strength gloves and flinging gerbils into its cage for many years.

Ancient civilizations had widely divergent opinions about owls. The Greeks chose owls to represent Athena, the goddess of wisdom, but Romans were terrified of them, considering them bearers of ill omens. The Aztecs and Mayans hated and feared owls as symbols of death and destruction, while many Indigenous groups scared their children with stories of owls waiting in the dark to carry them away. The ancient Egyptians had a kinder view of owls, believing that they protected the spirits of the dead as they traveled to the underworld.


  • Askew, Nick. «List of Owl Species.» BirdLife International, June 24, 2009.
  • BirdLife International. «Micrathene « The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: e.T22689325A93226849, 2016. whitneyi.
  • BirdLife International. «Bubo .» The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: e.T22689055A127837214, 2017.scandiacus (errata version published in 2018)
  • BirdLife International. «Heteroglaux .» The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: e.T22689335A132251554, 2018.blewitti
  • BirdLife International. «Aegolius .» The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: e.T22689362A93228127, 2016. funereus
  • BirdLife International. «Otus .» The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: e.T22728599A134199532, 2018.siaoensis
  • Lynch, Wayne. «Owls of the United States and Canada: A Complete Guide to their Biology and Behavior.» Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Owls are nocturnal and solitary birds of prey with hooked bills and claws, front-facing eyes and flat faces. They live almost everywhere except for Antarctica.

Asking «where do owls live» is almost always dependent on the exact species of owl you’re wondering about. Generally, however, make their nests in cavities, such as hollow trees or crevices in cliffs. Most owls eat small mammals, birds, snakes and insects, and they usually hunt at night.

Owl Facts: Classification and Description

All owls are members of the order Strigiformes. This order includes about 200 species of almost solely nocturnal birds of prey.

This order is also defined by the following characteristics:

  • Mostly solitary animals
  • Binocular vision
  • Feather adaptations for aerodynamics and silent flight
  • Large heads
  • «Stand» upright

Typically this order is divided into two distinct families of owls. The owl species in the family Strigidae are known as «typical owls» while the owl species in the family Tytonidae are known as «barn owls.»

Barred Owls

A barred owl

••• Medioimages/Photodisc/Valueline/Getty Images

Barred owls are common in the United States and make their home in woodlands with sparse undergrowth, wooded river bottoms and wooded swamps. Like most owls, they prefer to live in cavities but might also live in a simple nest box with a large opening attached to a tree. They rarely bring extra nesting material into a cavity or nest box.

Barred owls grow to 20 to 24 inches and have a call that sounds like «Who cooks for you» repeated three or four times. They tend to hunt during the day.

Their coloration of brown and white patterns allows them to easily blend into the trees and mostly temperate deciduous forests that they call home.

The Great Horned Owl

Great horned owls like to take over abandoned nests of crows, great blue herons and hawks but, like other owls, sometimes make nests in cavities. This owl grows to 20 to 25 inches and prefers to live in forests, woodlots, deserts or residential areas.

Their grey-brown coloration allows them to be camouflaged within each of their environments including swamps, evergreen forests and deciduous forests. Their coloration will also depend on their geographic range.

For example, great horned owls native to the pacific northwest have a darker grey sooty coloration that matches their environment. Those closer to arctic regions in Canada, on the other hand, have much more white and light grey in their coloration.

The Eastern Screech Owl

An eastern screech owl in a tree

••• Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

The eastern screech owl grows only to about 9 inches, and its call is a trilled sound. They prefer to take over former woodpecker nests in cavities, and they also like wooden nest boxes.

Males and females roost together and are thought to mate for life. They prefer to live in shade trees in deciduous woodlands.

The Western Screech Owl

The western screech owl grows to about 8 1/2 inches. It is fairly common in the western half of the United States and prefers wooded canyons, farm groves, shade trees, residential areas and cactus woodlands.

The Burrowing Owl

A burrowing owl

••• Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

The burrowing owl prefers open spaces, such as farms, grasslands and deserts, and nests in a hole or burrow in the ground. Usually, it reuses a hole made by a prairie dog, tortoise, armadillo or skunk, but sometimes it digs its own.

Burrowing owls live in the western United States in summer and Central and South America year around. They grow to about 10 inches.

The Snowy Owl

Snowy owls

••• Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

The snowy owl lives in the North American Arctic tundra year around, but it finds its way farther south into the United States in winter to hunt, if prey is scarce. This white owl is the heaviest owl of North America and grows to 20 to 27 inches.

It makes its home between the tree line and polar seas of northernmost Canada. It makes its nest on elevated ground.

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Temporal range: Late Paleocene to recent 60–0 Ma












Left Strigidae: Tawny owl (Strix aluco), Eurasian eagle-owl (Bubo bubo), Little owl (Athene noctua), Northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus); Right Tytonidae: Barn owl (Tyto alba), Lesser sooty owl (Tyto multipunctata), Tasmanian masked owl (Tyto novaehollandiae castanops), Sri Lanka bay owl (Phodilus assimilis).
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Clade: Telluraves
Order: Strigiformes
Wagler, 1830

Ogygoptyngidae (fossil)
Palaeoglaucidae (fossil)
Protostrigidae (fossil)
Sophiornithidae (fossil)

      range of the owl, all species

Strigidae sensu Sibley & Ahlquist

Owls are birds from the order Strigiformes[1] (), which includes over 200 species of mostly solitary and nocturnal birds of prey typified by an upright stance, a large, broad head, binocular vision, binaural hearing, sharp talons, and feathers adapted for silent flight. Exceptions include the diurnal northern hawk-owl and the gregarious burrowing owl.

Owls are divided into two families: the true (or typical) owl family, Strigidae, and the barn-owl family, Tytonidae.[2] Owls hunt mostly small mammals, insects, and other birds, although a few species specialize in hunting fish. They are found in all regions of the Earth except the polar ice caps and some remote islands.

A group of owls is called a «parliament».[3]


Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia)
Cross-eyed owl

Owls possess large, forward-facing eyes and ear-holes, a hawk-like beak, a flat face, and usually a conspicuous circle of feathers, a facial disc, around each eye. The feathers making up this disc can be adjusted to sharply focus sounds from varying distances onto the owls’ asymmetrically placed ear cavities. Most birds of prey have eyes on the sides of their heads, but the stereoscopic nature of the owl’s forward-facing eyes permits the greater sense of depth perception necessary for low-light hunting. Owls have binocular vision, but they must rotate their entire heads to change the focus of their view because, like most birds, their eyes are fixed in their sockets. Owls are farsighted and cannot clearly see anything nearer than a few centimetres of their eyes. Caught prey can be felt by owls with the use of filoplumes—hairlike feathers on the beak and feet that act as «feelers». Their far vision, particularly in low light, is exceptionally good.

Owls can rotate their heads and necks as much as 270°. Owls have 14 neck vertebrae — humans have only seven — and their vertebral circulatory systems are adapted to allow them to rotate their heads without cutting off blood to the brain. Specifically, the foramina in their vertebrae through which the vertebral arteries pass are about 10 times the diameter of the artery, instead of about the same size as the artery, as is the case in humans; the vertebral arteries enter the cervical vertebrae higher than in other birds, giving the vessels some slack, and the carotid arteries unite in a very large anastomosis or junction, the largest of any bird’s, preventing blood supply from being cut off while they rotate their necks. Other anastomoses between the carotid and vertebral arteries support this effect.[4][5]

The smallest owl—weighing as little as 31 g (1+332 oz) and measuring some 13.5 cm (5+14 in)—is the elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi).[6] Around the same diminutive length, although slightly heavier, are the lesser known long-whiskered owlet (Xenoglaux loweryi) and Tamaulipas pygmy owl (Glaucidium sanchezi).[6] The largest owls are two similarly sized eagle owls; the Eurasian eagle-owl (Bubo bubo) and Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni). The largest females of these species are 71 cm (28 in) long, have a 190 cm (75 in) wing span, and weigh 4.2 kg (9+14 lb).[6][7][8][9][10]

Different species of owls produce different sounds; this distribution of calls aids owls in finding mates or announcing their presence to potential competitors, and also aids ornithologists and birders in locating these birds and distinguishing species. As noted above, their facial discs help owls to funnel the sound of prey to their ears. In many species, these discs are placed asymmetrically, for better directional location.

Owl plumage is generally cryptic, although several species have facial and head markings, including face masks, ear tufts, and brightly colored irises. These markings are generally more common in species inhabiting open habitats, and are thought to be used in signaling with other owls in low-light conditions.[11]

Sexual dimorphism

Sexual dimorphism is a physical difference between males and females of a species. Female owls are typically larger than the males.[12] The degree of size dimorphism varies across multiple populations and species, and is measured through various traits, such as wing span and body mass.[12]

One theory suggests that selection has led males to be smaller because it allows them to be efficient foragers. The ability to obtain more food is advantageous during breeding season. In some species, female owls stay at their nest with their eggs while it is the responsibility of the male to bring back food to the nest.[13] If food is scarce, the male first feeds himself before feeding the female.[14] Small birds, which are agile, are an important source of food for owls. Male burrowing owls have been observed to have longer wing chords than females, despite being smaller than females.[14] Furthermore, owls have been observed to be roughly the same size as their prey.[14] This has also been observed in other predatory birds,[13] which suggests that owls with smaller bodies and long wing chords have been selected for because of the increased agility and speed that allows them to catch their prey.[citation needed]

Another popular theory suggests that females have not been selected to be smaller like male owls because of their sexual roles. In many species, female owls may not leave the nest. Therefore, females may have a larger mass to allow them to go for a longer period of time without starving. For example, one hypothesized sexual role is that larger females are more capable of dismembering prey and feeding it to their young, hence female owls are larger than their male counterparts.[12]

A different theory suggests that the size difference between male and females is due to sexual selection: since large females can choose their mate and may violently reject a male’s sexual advances, smaller male owls that have the ability to escape unreceptive females are more likely to have been selected.[14]

If the character is stable, there can be different optimums for both sexes. Selection operates on both sexes at the same time; therefore it is necessary to explain not only why one of the sexes is relatively bigger, but also why the other sex is smaller.[15] If owls are still evolving toward smaller bodies and longer wing chords, according to V. Geodakyan’s Evolutionary Theory of Sex, males should be more advanced on these characters. Males are viewed as an evolutionary vanguard of a population, and sexual dimorphism on the character, as an evolutionary «distance» between the sexes. «Phylogenetic rule of sexual dimorphism» states that if there exists a sexual dimorphism on any character, then the evolution of this trait goes from the female form toward the male one.[16]

Hunting adaptations

All owls are carnivorous birds of prey and live on diets of insects, small rodents and lagomorphs. Some owls are also specifically adapted to hunt fish. They are very adept in hunting in their respective environments. Since owls can be found in nearly all parts of the world and across a multitude of ecosystems, their hunting skills and characteristics vary slightly from species to species, though most characteristics are shared among all species.[17]

Flight and feathers

External videos
video icon Experiment! How Does An Owl Fly So Silently?, from BBC Earth

Most owls share an innate ability to fly almost silently and also more slowly in comparison to other birds of prey. Most owls live a mainly nocturnal lifestyle and being able to fly without making any noise gives them a strong advantage over prey alert to the slightest sound in the night. A silent, slow flight is not as necessary for diurnal and crepuscular owls given that prey can usually see an owl approaching. Owls’ feathers are generally larger than the average birds’ feathers, have fewer radiates, longer pennulum, and achieve smooth edges with different rachis structures.[18] Serrated edges along the owl’s remiges bring the flapping of the wing down to a nearly silent mechanism. The serrations are more likely reducing aerodynamic disturbances, rather than simply reducing noise.[19] The surface of the flight feathers is covered with a velvety structure that absorbs the sound of the wing moving. These unique structures reduce noise frequencies above 2 kHz,[20] making the sound level emitted drop below the typical hearing spectrum of the owl’s usual prey[20][21] and also within the owl’s own best hearing range.[22][23] This optimizes the owl’s ability to silently fly to capture prey without the prey hearing the owl first as it flies, and to hear any noise the prey makes. It also allows the owl to monitor the sound output from its flight pattern.

A great horned owl with wet feathers, waiting out a rainstorm

The disadvantage of such feather adaptations for barn owls is that their feathers are not waterproof.[24] The adaptations mean that barn owls do not use the Uropygial gland, informally the «preen» or «oil» gland, as most birds do, to spread oils across their plumage through preening.[25] This makes them highly vulnerable to heavy rain when they are unable to hunt.[26] Historically, they would switch to hunting indoors in wet weather, using barns and other agricultural buildings, but the decline in the numbers of these structures in the 20th and 21st centuries has reduced such opportunities.[24] The lack of waterproofing means that barn owls are also susceptible to drowning, in drinking troughs and other structures with smooth sides. The Barn Owl Trust provides advice on how this can be mitigated, by the installation of floats.[27]


Eyesight is a particular characteristic of the owl that aids in nocturnal prey capture. Owls are part of a small group of birds that live nocturnally, but do not use echolocation to guide them in flight in low-light situations. Owls are known for their disproportionally large eyes in comparison to their skulls. An apparent consequence of the evolution of an absolutely large eye in a relatively small skull is that the eye of the owl has become tubular in shape. This shape is found in other so-called nocturnal eyes, such as the eyes of strepsirrhine primates and bathypelagic fishes.[28] Since the eyes are fixed into these sclerotic tubes, they are unable to move the eyes in any direction.[29] Instead of moving their eyes, owls swivel their heads to view their surroundings. Owls’ heads are capable of swiveling through an angle of roughly 270°, easily enabling them to see behind them without relocating the torso.[29] This ability keeps bodily movement at a minimum, thus reduces the amount of sound the owl makes as it waits for its prey. Owls are regarded as having the most frontally placed eyes among all avian groups, which gives them some of the largest binocular fields of vision. Owls are farsighted and cannot focus on objects within a few centimetres of their eyes.[28][30] These mechanisms are only able to function due to the large-sized retinal image.[31] Thus, the primary nocturnal function in the vision of the owl is due to its large posterior nodal distance; retinal image brightness is only maximized to the owl within secondary neural functions.[31] These attributes of the owl cause its nocturnal eyesight to be far superior to that of its average prey.[31]


A great horned owl perched on the top of a Joshua tree at evening (twilight) in the Mojave Desert, U.S.

Owls exhibit specialized hearing functions and ear shapes that also aid in hunting. They are noted for asymmetrical ear placements on the skull in some genera. Owls can have either internal or external ears, both of which are asymmetrical. Asymmetry has not been reported to extend to the middle or internal ear of the owl. Asymmetrical ear placement on the skull allows the owl to pinpoint the location of its prey. This is especially true for strictly nocturnal species such as the barn owls Tyto or Tengmalm’s owl.[29] With ears set at different places on its skull, an owl is able to determine the direction from which the sound is coming by the minute difference in time that it takes for the sound waves to penetrate the left and right ears.[32] The owl turns its head until the sound reaches both ears at the same time, at which point it is directly facing the source of the sound. This time difference between ears is about 30 microseconds. Behind the ear openings are modified, dense feathers, densely packed to form a facial ruff, which creates an anterior-facing, concave wall that cups the sound into the ear structure.[33] This facial ruff is poorly defined in some species, and prominent, nearly encircling the face, in other species. The facial disk also acts to direct sound into the ears, and a downward-facing, sharply triangular beak minimizes sound reflection away from the face. The shape of the facial disk is adjustable at will to focus sounds more effectively.[29]

The prominences above a great horned owl’s head are commonly mistaken as its ears. This is not the case; they are merely feather tufts. The ears are on the sides of the head in the usual location (in two different locations as described above).


While the auditory and visual capabilities of the owl allow it to locate and pursue its prey, the talons and beak of the owl do the final work. The owl kills its prey using these talons to crush the skull and knead the body.[29] The crushing power of an owl’s talons varies according to prey size and type, and by the size of the owl. The burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia), a small, partly insectivorous owl, has a release force of only 5 N. The larger barn owl (Tyto alba) needs a force of 30 N to release its prey, and one of the largest owls, the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) needs a force over 130 N to release prey in its talons.[34] An owl’s talons, like those of most birds of prey, can seem massive in comparison to the body size outside of flight. The Tasmanian masked owl has some of the proportionally longest talons of any bird of prey; they appear enormous in comparison to the body when fully extended to grasp prey.[35] An owl’s claws are sharp and curved. The family Tytonidae has inner and central toes of about equal length, while the family Strigidae has an inner toe that is distinctly shorter than the central one.[34] These different morphologies allow efficiency in capturing prey specific to the different environments they inhabit.


The beak of the owl is short, curved, and downward-facing, and typically hooked at the tip for gripping and tearing its prey. Once prey is captured, the scissor motion of the top and lower bill is used to tear the tissue and kill. The sharp lower edge of the upper bill works in coordination with the sharp upper edge of the lower bill to deliver this motion. The downward-facing beak allows the owl’s field of vision to be clear, as well as directing sound into the ears without deflecting sound waves away from the face.[36]


The snowy owl has effective snow camouflage

The coloration of the owl’s plumage plays a key role in its ability to sit still and blend into the environment, making it nearly invisible to prey. Owls tend to mimic the coloration and sometimes the texture patterns of their surroundings, the barn owl being an exception. The snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) appears nearly bleach-white in color with a few flecks of black, mimicking their snowy surroundings perfectly, while the speckled brown plumage of the tawny owl (Strix aluco) allows it to lie in wait among the deciduous woodland it prefers for its habitat. Likewise, the mottled wood-owl (Strix ocellata) displays shades of brown, tan and black, making the owl nearly invisible in the surrounding trees, especially from behind. Usually, the only tell-tale sign of a perched owl is its vocalizations or its vividly colored eyes.


Comparison of an owl (left) and hawk (right) remex.
The serrations on the leading edge of an owl’s flight feathers reduce noise
Owl eyes each have nictitating membranes that can move independently of each other, as seen on this spotted eagle-owl in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Most owls are nocturnal, actively hunting their prey in darkness. Several types of owls are crepuscular—active during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk; one example is the pygmy owl (Glaucidium). A few owls are active during the day, also; examples are the burrowing owl (Speotyto cunicularia) and the short-eared owl (Asio flammeus).

Much of the owls’ hunting strategy depends on stealth and surprise. Owls have at least two adaptations that aid them in achieving stealth. First, the dull coloration of their feathers can render them almost invisible under certain conditions. Secondly, serrated edges on the leading edge of owls’ remiges muffle an owl’s wing beats, allowing an owl’s flight to be practically silent. Some fish-eating owls, for which silence has no evolutionary advantage, lack this adaptation.

An owl’s sharp beak and powerful talons allow it to kill its prey before swallowing it whole (if it is not too big). Scientists studying the diets of owls are helped by their habit of regurgitating the indigestible parts of their prey (such as bones, scales, and fur) in the form of pellets. These «owl pellets» are plentiful and easy to interpret, and are often sold by companies to schools for dissection by students as a lesson in biology and ecology.[37]

Breeding and reproduction

Owl eggs typically have a white color and an almost spherical shape, and range in number from a few to a dozen, depending on species and the particular season; for most, three or four is the more common number. In at least one species, female owls do not mate with the same male for a lifetime. Female burrowing owls commonly travel and find other mates, while the male stays in his territory and mates with other females.[38]

Evolution and systematics

A great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) sleeping during daytime in a hollow tree

Recent phylogenetic studies place owls within the clade Telluraves, most closely related to the Accipitrimorphae and the Coraciimorphae,[39][40] although the exact placement within Telluraves is disputed.[41][42]

See below cladogram:

Cladogram of Telluraves relationships based on Braun & Kimball (2021)[43]

Some 220 to 225 extant species of owls are known, subdivided into two families: 1. true owls or typical owls family (Strigidae) and 2. barn-owls family (Tytonidae). Some entirely extinct families have also been erected based on fossil remains; these differ much from modern owls in being less specialized or specialized in a very different way (such as the terrestrial Sophiornithidae). The Paleocene genera Berruornis and Ogygoptynx show that owls were already present as a distinct lineage some 60–57 million years ago (Mya), hence, possibly also some 5 million years earlier, at the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. This makes them one of the oldest known groups of non-Galloanserae landbirds. The supposed «Cretaceous owls» Bradycneme and Heptasteornis are apparently non-avialan maniraptors.[44]

During the Paleogene, the Strigiformes radiated into ecological niches now mostly filled by other groups of birds.[clarification needed] The owls as known today, though, evolved their characteristic morphology and adaptations during that time, too. By the early Neogene, the other lineages had been displaced by other bird orders, leaving only barn owls and typical owls. The latter at that time was usually a fairly generic type of (probably earless) owl similar to today’s North American spotted owl or the European tawny owl; the diversity in size and ecology found in typical owls today developed only subsequently.

Around the Paleogene-Neogene boundary (some 25 Mya), barn owls were the dominant group of owls in southern Europe and adjacent Asia at least; the distribution of fossil and present-day owl lineages indicates that their decline is contemporary with the evolution of the different major lineages of true owls, which for the most part seems to have taken place in Eurasia. In the Americas, rather, an expansion of immigrant lineages of ancestral typical owls occurred.

The supposed fossil herons «Ardea» perplexa (Middle Miocene of Sansan, France) and «Ardea» lignitum (Late Pliocene of Germany) were more probably owls; the latter was apparently close to the modern genus Bubo. Judging from this, the Late Miocene remains from France described as «Ardea» aureliensis should also be restudied.[45] The Messelasturidae, some of which were initially believed to be basal Strigiformes, are now generally accepted to be diurnal birds of prey showing some convergent evolution toward owls. The taxa often united under Strigogyps[46] were formerly placed in part with the owls, specifically the Sophiornithidae; they appear to be Ameghinornithidae instead.[47][48][49]

The ancient fossil owl Palaeoglaux artophoron

For fossil species and paleosubspecies of extant taxa, see the genus and species articles. For a full list of extant and recently extinct owls, see the article List of owl species.

Unresolved and basal forms (all fossil)

  • Berruornis (Late Paleocene of France) basal? Sophornithidae?
  • Strigiformes gen. et sp. indet. (Late Paleocene of Zhylga, Kazakhstan)[50]
  • Primoptynx (Early Eocene of Wyoming, U.S.)[51]
  • Palaeoglaux (Middle-Late Eocene of West-Central Europe) own family Palaeoglaucidae or Strigidae?
  • Palaeobyas (Late Eocene/Early Oligocene of Quercy, France) Tytonidae? Sophiornithidae?[citation needed]
  • Palaeotyto (Late Eocene/Early Oligocene of Quercy, France) Tytonidae? Sophiornithidae?[citation needed]
  • Strigiformes gen. et spp. indet. (Early Oligocene of Wyoming, U.S.)[45]
  • Ypresiglaux (Early Eocene of Essex, United Kingdom and Virginia, U.S.)[52]


  • Ogygoptynx (Middle/Late Paleocene of Colorado, U.S.)


  • Eostrix (Early Eocene of United States, Europe, and Mongolia). E. gulottai is the smallest known fossil (or living) owl.[53]
  • Minerva (Middle – Late Eocene of western U.S.) formerly Protostrix, includes «Aquila» ferox, «Aquila» lydekkeri, and «Bubo» leptosteus
  • Oligostrix (mid-Oligocene of Saxony, Germany)


  • Sophiornis


  • Genus Tyto – the barn owls, grass owls, and masked owls, stand up to 500 mm (20 in) tall; some 15 extant species and possibly one recently extinct
  • Genus Phodilus – the bay owls, two to three extant species and possibly one recently extinct

Fossil genera

  • Nocturnavis (Late Eocene/Early Oligocene) includes «Bubo» incertus
  • Selenornis (Late Eocene/Early Oligocene) – includes «Asio» henrici
  • Necrobyas (Late Eocene/Early Oligocene – Late Miocene) includes «Bubo» arvernensis and Paratyto
  • Prosybris (Early Oligocene? – Early Miocene)

Placement unresolved

  • Tytonidae gen. et sp. indet. «TMT 164» (Middle Miocene) – Prosybris?


A long-eared owl (Asio otus) in an erect pose
The laughing owl (Ninox albifacies), last seen in 1914
  • Genus Aegolius – the saw-whet owls, four species
  • Genus Asio – the eared owls, eight species
  • Genus Athene – two to four species (depending on whether the genera Speotyto and Heteroglaux are included or not)
  • Genus Bubo – the horned owls, eagle-owls and fish-owls; paraphyletic with the genera Nyctea, Ketupa, and Scotopelia, some 25 species
  • Genus Glaucidium – the pygmy owls, about 30–35 species
  • Genus Gymnasio – the Puerto Rican owl
  • Genus Gymnoglaux – the bare-legged owl or Cuban screech-owl
  • Genus Lophostrix – the crested owl
  • Genus Jubula – the maned owl
  • Genus Megascops – the screech owls, some 20 species
  • Genus Micrathene – the elf owl
  • Genus Ninox – the Australasian hawk-owls or boobooks, some 20 species
  • Genus Otus – the scops owls; probably paraphyletic, about 45 species
  • Genus Pseudoscops – the Jamaican owl
  • Genus Psiloscops – the flammulated owl
  • Genus Ptilopsis – the white-faced owls, two species
  • Genus Pulsatrix – the spectacled owls, three species
  • Genus Strix – the earless owls, about 15 species, including four previously assigned to Ciccaba
  • Genus Surnia – the northern hawk-owl
  • Genus Taenioptynx — the collared owlet
  • Genus Uroglaux – the Papuan hawk-owl
  • Genus Xenoglaux – the long-whiskered owlet

Extinct genera

  • Genus Grallistrix – the stilt-owls, four species; prehistoric
  • Genus Ornimegalonyx – the Caribbean giant owls, one to two species; prehistoric

Fossil genera

  • Mioglaux (Late Oligocene? – Early Miocene of West-Central Europe) – includes «Bubo» poirreiri
  • Intutula (Early/Middle – ?Late Miocene of Central Europe) – includes «Strix/Ninox» brevis
  • Alasio (Middle Miocene of Vieux-Collonges, France) – includes «Strix» collongensis
  • Oraristrix – the Brea owl (Late Pleistocene)

Placement unresolved

  • «Otus/Strix» wintershofensis: fossil (Early/Middle Miocene of Wintershof West, Germany) – may be close to extant genus Ninox[45]
  • «Strix» edwardsi – fossil (Middle/Late? Miocene)
  • «Asio» pygmaeus – fossil (Early Pliocene of Odesa, Ukraine)
  • Strigidae gen. et sp. indet. UMMP V31030 (Late Pliocene) – Strix/Bubo?
  • the Ibizan owl, Strigidae gen. et sp. indet. – prehistoric[54]

Symbolism and mythology

African cultures

Among the Kikuyu of Kenya, it was believed that owls were harbingers of death. If one saw an owl or heard its hoot, someone was going to die. In general, owls are viewed as harbingers of bad luck, ill health, or death. The belief is widespread even today.[55]


In China, owls were traditionally considered to be omens of evil or misfortune. In Japan, owls are regarded as lucky,[56] although in ancient times they were associated with death.[57] In India, it is associated with bad luck.[58] In Mongolia, the owl is regarded as a benign omen. In one story, Genghis Khan was hiding from enemies in a small coppice when an owl roosted in the tree above him, which caused his pursuers to think no man could be hidden there.[59]

Hootum Pyanchar Naksha by Kaliprasanna Singha (1841–1870), first published in 1861, is a book of social commentaries influential in Bengali literature. The name literally means «Sketches by a Watching Owl».

Sumerian and ancient Semitic cultures

In Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian culture, the owl was associated with Lilith.[60] This association also occurs in the Bible (in some translations) in Isaiah 34:14.[61]

Ancient European and modern Western culture

The modern West generally associates owls with wisdom and vigilance. This link goes back at least as far as Ancient Greece, where Athens, noted for art and scholarship, and Athena, Athens’ patron goddess and the goddess of wisdom, had the owl as a symbol.[62] Marija Gimbutas traces veneration of the owl as a goddess, among other birds, to the culture of Old Europe, long pre-dating Indo-European cultures.[63]

T. F. Thiselton-Dyer, in his 1883 Folk-lore of Shakespeare, says that «from the earliest period it has been considered a bird of ill-omen,» and Pliny tells us how, on one occasion, even Rome itself underwent a lustration, because one of them strayed into the Capitol. He represents it also as a funereal bird, a monster of the night, the very abomination of humankind. Virgil describes its death howl from the top of the temple by night, a circumstance introduced as a precursor of Dido’s death. Ovid, too, constantly speaks of this bird’s presence as an evil omen; and indeed the same notions respecting it may be found among the writings of most of the ancient poets.»[64] A list of «omens drear» in John Keats’ Hyperion includes the «gloom-bird’s hated screech.»[65] Pliny the Elder reports that owls’ eggs were commonly used as a hangover cure.[66]

One of the etymologies offered for the name of the German folk hero Till Eulenspiegel is that it means «Mirror for Owls».

  • An owl-shaped protocorinthian aryballos, c. 640 BCE, from Greece

    An owl-shaped protocorinthian aryballos, c. 640 BCE, from Greece

  • A Roman owl mosaic from Italica, Spain

    A Roman owl mosaic from Italica, Spain

  • A Manises plate, c. 1535. A fantastical owl wearing a crown, a characteristic Manises design during the first half of the 16th century

    A Manises plate, c. 1535. A fantastical owl wearing a crown, a characteristic Manises design during the first half of the 16th century

  • The Little Owl, 1506, by Albrecht Dürer

    The Little Owl, 1506, by Albrecht Dürer

  • Wooden Owls of Natungram, West Bengal, India. The wooden owl is an integral part of an ancient and indigenous tradition and art form in Bengal along with its auspicious association with Goddess of wealth, Laxmi.

    Wooden Owls of Natungram, West Bengal, India. The wooden owl is an integral part of an ancient and indigenous tradition and art form in Bengal along with its auspicious association with Goddess of wealth, Laxmi.

  • Wooden Owl dolls from Katawa, West Bengal, India.

    Wooden Owl dolls from Katawa, West Bengal, India.


The Hindu goddess Lakshmi with the owl

In Hinduism, an owl is the vahana (mount) of the goddess Lakshmi, especially in the eastern region of India.[67] Owls are considered a symbol of wealth, prosperity, wisdom, good luck, and fortune. This is the reason why Owls are seen with Lakshmi, who is also the goddess of fortune, wealth, and prosperity.

At the same time, owls are also associated with evil times in Hinduism. At times, Chamunda (fearsome form of Chandi) is depicted seated on an owl, her vahana (mount or vehicle). Hindus believe that owls are messengers of death.[68][better source needed]

Native American cultures

People often allude to the reputation of owls as bearers of supernatural danger when they tell misbehaving children, «the owls will get you»,[69] and in most Native American folklore, owls are a symbol of death.

According to the Apache and Seminole tribes, hearing owls hooting is considered the subject of numerous «bogeyman» stories told to warn children to remain indoors at night or not to cry too much, otherwise the owl may carry them away.[70][71] In some tribal legends, owls are associated with spirits of the dead, and the bony circles around an owl’s eyes are said to comprise the fingernails of apparitional humans. Sometimes owls are said to carry messages from beyond the grave or deliver supernatural warnings to people who have broken tribal taboos.[72]

The Aztecs and the Maya, along with other natives of Mesoamerica, considered the owl a symbol of death and destruction. In fact, the Aztec god of death, Mictlantecuhtli, was often depicted with owls.[73] There is an old saying in Mexico that is still in use:[74] Cuando el tecolote canta, el indio muere («When the owl cries/sings, the Indian dies»). The Popol Vuh, a Mayan religious text, describes owls as messengers of Xibalba (the Mayan «Place of Fright»).[75]

The belief that owls are messengers and harbingers of the dark powers is also found among the Hočągara (Winnebago) of Wisconsin.[76] When in earlier days the Hočągara committed the sin of killing enemies while they were within the sanctuary of the chief’s lodge, an owl appeared and spoke to them in the voice of a human, saying, «From now on, the Hočągara will have no luck.» This marked the beginning of the decline of their tribe.[77] An owl appeared to Glory of the Morning, the only female chief of the Hočąk nation, and uttered her name. Soon after, she died.[78][79]

According to the culture of the Hopi, a Uto-Aztec tribe, taboos surround owls, which are associated with sorcery and other evils.[citation needed]

The Ojibwe tribes, as well as their Aboriginal Canadian counterparts, used an owl as a symbol for both evil and death. In addition, they used owls as a symbol of very high status of spiritual leaders of their spirituality.[80]

The Pawnee tribes viewed owls as the symbol of protection from any danger within their realms.[80]

The Puebloan peoples associated owls with Skeleton Man, the god of death and the spirit of fertility.[80]

The Yakama tribes use an owl as a totem, to guide where and how forests and natural resources are useful with management.[80]

Rodent control

A purpose-built owl-house or owlery at a farm near Morton on the Hill, England (2006)

Encouraging natural predators to control rodent population is a natural form of pest control, along with excluding food sources for rodents. Placing a nest box for owls on a property can help control rodent populations (one family of hungry barn owls can consume more than 3,000 rodents in a nesting season) while maintaining the naturally balanced food chain.[81]

Attacks on humans

Although humans and owls frequently live together in harmony, there have been incidents when owls have attacked humans.[82] For example, in January 2013, a man from Inverness, Scotland suffered heavy bleeding and went into shock after being attacked by an owl, which was likely a 50-centimetre-tall (20 in) eagle-owl.[83] The photographer Eric Hosking lost his left eye after attempting to photograph a tawny owl, which inspired the title of his 1970 autobiography, An Eye for a Bird.

Conservation issues

The snowy owl is very endangered in Scandinavia[84] and Finland, where it is found only in northern Lapland.[85]

Almost all owls are listed in Appendix II of the international CITES treaty (the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) with four species listed in Appendix I. Although owls have long been hunted, a 2008 news story from Malaysia indicates that the magnitude of owl poaching may be on the rise. In November 2008, TRAFFIC reported the seizure of 900 plucked and «oven-ready» owls in Peninsular Malaysia. Said Chris Shepherd, Senior Programme Officer for TRAFFIC’s Southeast Asia office, «This is the first time we know of where ‘ready-prepared’ owls have been seized in Malaysia, and it may mark the start of a new trend in wild meat from the region. We will be monitoring developments closely.» TRAFFIC commended the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Malaysia for the raid that exposed the huge haul of owls. Included in the seizure were dead and plucked barn owls, spotted wood owls, crested serpent eagles, barred eagles, and brown wood owls, as well as 7,000 live lizards.[86]

In addition to hunting, other threats to owl populations are habitat loss, pesticides, viruses, and vehicle collisions.[87][88]


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Further reading

  • Calaprice, Alice & Heinrich, Bernd (1990): Owl in the House: A Naturalist’s Diary. Joy Street Books, Boston. ISBN 0-316-35456-2.
  • Duncan, James (2013). The Complete Book of North American Owls. Thunder Bay Press, San Diego. ISBN 978-1-60710-726-2.
  • Duncan, James (2003). Owls of the World. Key Porter Books, Toronto. ISBN 1-55263-214-8.
  • Heinrich, Bernd (1987): One Man’s Owl. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-08470-1. OCLC 15486687.
  • Johnsgard, Paul A. (2002): North American Owls: Biology and Natural History, 2nd ed. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. ISBN 1-56098-939-4.
  • Maslow, Jonathan Evan (1983): The Owl Papers, 1st Vintage Books ed. Vintage Books, New York. ISBN 0-394-75813-7.
  • Sibley, Charles Gald & Monroe, Burt L. Jr. (1990): Distribution and taxonomy of the birds of the world: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. ISBN 0-300-04969-2

External links

Look up owl in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

  • The Owl Pages
  • Owl Brain Atlas
  • Smithsonian Snowy Owl Info Archived 27 November 1999 at the Wayback Machine
  • World Owl Trust
  • Athenian Owl coins


  • World of Owls – Northern Ireland’s only owl, bird of prey and exotic animal centre
  • Current Blakiston’s Fish Owl Research in Russia

North America:

  • List of Owl Species Breeding In North American and Owl Photos


  • iprimus Archived 8 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine info. re Australian owls and frogmouths

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