Occurring on every continent except Antarctica, Owls are a large and unique group of predatory birds from the order Strigiformes. Although rarely seen, these birds occupy every major habitat type and vary greatly in size and appearance.

Owls are some of the world’s most loved, feared, and misunderstood birds. They may be popular with birdwatchers and nature lovers in general, but these hunters of the night remain a symbol of bad luck in some cultures.

We’ve all seen Owls in films, cartoons, and elsewhere in the media, but how much do you know about the real day-to-day life of these fascinating birds?

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about Owls, including their anatomy, feeding habits, conservation status, and the species you’re most likely to encounter.

What Makes Owls Unique?

Owls are a diverse group of birds with some remarkable adaptations. They are among the best-camouflaged creatures on the planet and rely on their cryptic plumage to avoid detection by both predators and prey.

However, camouflage isn’t the only trick up their sleeves. These birds combine extraordinary senses and stealthy hunting techniques to embody one of nature's deadliest killers.

Owls can be surprisingly common if you know where to look for them, but their nocturnal habits can make them difficult to detect when not calling.

Apart from the occasional glimpse of a shadowy silhouette or a spooky sound at night, Owls rarely give up their location. Their vocalizations vary greatly, but many species hoot to communicate, a sound that is both beautiful and spooky at the same time!

A well camouflaged European scops owl, hidden in a tree

A well camouflaged European scops owl, hidden in a tree

Anatomy of Owls

Owls come in many shapes and sizes, from songbird-sized Little Owls to massive Eagle-Owls and Fish Owls that can reach ten pounds (4.5 kg). In common with most birds of prey, female Owls are generally larger than males, and the difference can be striking in some species.

Owls have many specialized physical characteristics to suit their nocturnal hunting behavior, ranging from oddly shaped eyes to flexible feet. Continue reading to learn more about their anatomy and senses.


Owls have enormous, tube-shaped eyes for improved night vision. However, their elongated shape makes them difficult to move within their sockets, forcing the birds to turn their heads to adjust their view.

To improve their field of view, Owls can swivel their heads an amazing 270 degrees to look over their shoulder.


Owls have relatively flat, disc-shaped faces that improve their senses for hunting. Their eyes are situated on the front of their face for improved binocular vision, but a flattened face also helps with hearing.

Like a satellite dish, the owl’s facial disk can capture the sound of prey rustling in the grass below or the distant sounds of their neighbors calling from their territories.

Close up of a Great Horned Owls' face and eyes

Close up of a Great Horned Owls' face and eyes


Many Owl species have prominent tufts at the sides of their face that resemble large ears. Some ornithologists have suggested that these tufts make Owls look like larger predators, such as wolves or cats, and come in handy when threatened.

Another line of thought suggests that they break up the bird’s outline for camouflage, making them appear more like a broken tree stump. They can also raise and lower these tufts to communicate with their partner and other Owls.

These tufts may be useless for hearing, but Owls certainly do have ears. In fact, Owls rely on their amazing hearing to pinpoint their prey, sometimes in complete darkness!

Some species even have their ears asymmetrically arranged on the sides of their head so that one is slightly higher than the other. This helps them gauge the direction of their prey and even discover small animals moving beneath snow or vegetation.

Close up of a perched Long-eared owl

Close up of a perched Long-eared owl


Owls have sharp curved beaks, typical of birds of prey. These birds often swallow prey whole, but their beaks are perfectly designed for tearing large prey into manageable portions or feeding their young.


Owls have four needle-sharp curved talons for capturing and killing their prey. These deadly weapons can measure well over an inch (2.5 cm) in larger species. One of their toes can also swivel back to form a zygodactyl arrangement with two backward-facing toes and two forwards, giving them a powerful grip on their prey.

Check out our comprehensive guide on Owl Legs for more information.


If you’ve ever heard a Goose coming in to land or a Pigeon taking off, you’ll know that bird flight can be rather noisy. Sound presents a problem for Owls that rely on stealth to capture their prey before it can escape, but they have solved this problem with specially structured feathers along the leading and trailing edges of their wing. These unique feathers dampen sound and allow the nocturnal hunters to swoop in silence.

Hunting Barn owl, with talons on show

Hunting Barn owl, with talons on show

Behavior and Habits of Owls

Although difficult to observe, Owls have a number of interesting and unique behaviors. Continue reading for more facts on how these birds interact with each other and their environment.


Owls are generally monogamous birds, and some species even remain together throughout the year and mate for life.

These birds rely on excellent camouflage to stay hidden from prey and predators, so males do not develop bright colors in the breeding season like many songbirds.

Calling is the most effective way for these nocturnal birds to advertise their territory and attract a partner, although some also use display flights.


Owls can be very vocal birds, particularly in the months leading up to the nesting season. Many species produce typical hooting calls, and these sounds can travel impressive distances on still nights.

Perhaps the best-known Owl call is the classic ‘T’wit T’woo’ made by the Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) of Europe and Asia. Other Owl species from the Strix genus have similarly pleasant calls, like the Barred Owl (S. varia), whose call is likened to the phrase ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?

However, the various Owl species make many different sounds, ranging from insect-like buzzing to musical whistling. The screeching calls of the Barn Owl must surely rank as one of the spookiest sounds in the natural world!

Tawny owl coming in to land

Tawny owl coming in to land


Most Owls are highly territorial, particularly when nesting. Non-migratory species tend to defend their territory all year long, but more mobile species can be surprisingly social at times. Burrowing Owls, for example, live in loose groups, while Long-horned Owls are known to roost in large flocks.


Owls are rarely seen during the day, although many species will hide in plain sight. By choosing a spot that matches their plumage and closing their colorful eyes, some Owls can make themselves look just like a tree stump as they snooze among the branches. Other Owls hide themselves away by roosting in caves, crevices, and cavities.


Despite the Owl’s amazing hunting skills, these hunters may fall prey to larger predators. Owls are vulnerable to various other avian predators, including Falcons and even other Owl species. Mammals like cats, foxes, and mustelids will also prey on these birds at times.

Burrowing owls are social owls, and live in loose groups

Burrowing owls are social owls, and live in loose groups

Diet and Hunting

Owls are master hunters that take over from Hawks and other birds of prey when the sun sets. Continue reading to learn more about the Owl’s diet and hunting strategies.

Prey Items

Owls hunt a staggering variety of prey, including practically every type of small animal imaginable. Most species are opportunistic and will take anything small enough to safely capture and kill.

Typical Owl Prey

  • Invertebrates, including insects, worms, arachnids, and crustaceans
  • Mammals ranging from mice, rabbits, to raccoons and even deer fawns
  • Snakes, lizards, and other reptiles
  • Frogs and toads
  • Various birds, ranging from small songbirds to wildfowl and even other Owls

Ornithologists have learned a lot about the diets of various Owl species by studying their pellets. Like raptors and many other predatory birds, Owls regurgitate the bones and hair of their prey in neat, rounded pellets that may contain complete skulls and other clues about their diet.

Perched Little owl on the lookout for prey

Perched Little owl on the lookout for prey

Hunting strategies

Owls have various hunting techniques, depending on the species and the type of prey they are targeting. Most species hunt from a perch by scanning their surroundings and silently flying out to catch any unsuspecting prey that wanders into range. Some specialized species, like the fishing Owls of the Scotopelia genus, even dive into the water to catch their swimming prey.

Others take a more active approach and quarter (fly) low and slow over open habitats in search of food below. Owls are capable of surprisingly slow flight, which gives them plenty of time to detect their prey and react. Once spotted, they will drop down to grasp their victim in their sharp talons.

Some species will scavenge, and some, like the Great Horned Owl, are notorious nest raiders, preying on the young of large birds, including Eagles.

Great Horned Owl flying low

Great Horned Owl flying low

Distribution, Habitats, and Migration of Owls

Owls occur on every continent except Antarctica and inhabit every major habitat type except the open ocean. These birds are found throughout the United Kingdom and the United States, including Alaska and even the isolated islands of Hawaii.

Typical Owl habitats:

  • Mountains
  • Forests
  • Wetlands
  • Grasslands
  • Savanas
  • Woodlands
  • Tundra
  • Desert
  • Farmland
  • Urban and suburban habitats

Some species have pretty specialized habitat requirements and small distribution ranges. The newly described Principe Scops Owl (Otus bikegila), for example, is limited to the small islands of São Tomé and Principe off West Africa.

In contrast, Barn Owls (Tyto alba) are one of the most widespread bird species on the planet, familiar from the British countryside to Australia and the southern tip of Africa, and from the Pacific Northwest of the United States to southern Chile!

Most Owls are sedentary and territorial, although some are highly migratory. The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) of North America, Europe, and Asia is a migratory species that breeds in the Arctic but spends the winter further south, sometimes overwintering as far as Florida.

Snowy Owl on the ground in the snow

Snowy Owl on the ground in the snow

Common Owl Species

There are close to 250 known Owl species in the world, and they are classed into two families, namely the Strigidae (228 species) and Tytonidae (18 species). The United States is home to an impressive 18 species, while five commonly occur in the United Kingdom. Three species, namely the Barn Owl, Long-eared Owl, and Short-Eared Owl, occur in both countries.

Continue reading to learn more about some well-known British and American Owl species.

Owls in North America

North America is home to an impressive array of Owl species, ranging from miniature ground-dwellers to large migratory species that nest above the Arctic Circle. The following Owls are among the most widespread and common American species.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

The Barn Owl is widespread in the United States but very rare in Canada. They are the most widespread representative of the Tytonidae family and are well-known all over the world for their beautiful pale plumage and eerie screeching call. Barn Owls are most at home in open habitats and farmland, where they are very helpful in controlling rodent populations.

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

The Great Horned Owl is North America’s most widespread Owl species and arguably its most magnificent. These giant Owls occur everywhere from northern forests to the deserts of the Southwest, where they are feared by a variety of small animals and even other Owls.

Only one other American species rivals the Great-horned Owl for size and power. While similar in stature, the migratory Snowy Owl (B. scandiacus) is easily identified by its striking white plumage, which helps it blend seamlessly into its frozen habitats.

Barred Owl (Strix varia)

The Barred Owl is a large and common species of the eastern half of the US, parts of the Pacific Northwest, and much of southern and central Canada. These forest birds are sit-and-wait hunters that prey on unsuspecting animals that pass below their perch.

This species is most similar to the smaller Spotted Owl (S. occidentalis) of the west, although there is a third American Owl in the Strix genus. The Great Gray Owl (S. nebulosa) is the tallest Owl species in the United States. These magnificent birds embody the appearance of the ‘Wise Old Owl.’

Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio)

The United States is home to three species of Screech-Owls in the Megascops genus, and the Eastern Screech-Owl is the best known. These small ‘eared’ Owls are voracious predators of many small animals and other small birds. Screech-Owls are cavity nesters and can even be encouraged to nest in backyards by erecting suitable nest boxes.

Other Well-known Species

Owls in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is home to five Owl species, including one naturalized species introduced from mainland Europe.

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)

The Tawny Owl is the UK’s most common Owl species and is widespread in woodlands and other wooded habitats in England, Wales, and Scotland. These Owls are well known for their hauntingly beautiful hooting call, although they also produce a squeaky yapping sound. Tawny Owls are one of over twenty species in the Strix genus, a large group of Owls that are widespread in forested habitats across the globe.

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

The Little Owl is the UK’s smallest Owl species and its newest arrival. These birds were introduced to Britain over a century ago and are now widespread in England, with small numbers in Wales and Scotland.

Other Regular Species

Reproduction and Lifespan of Owls

Owls, for the most part, are monogamous birds that pair up and work together to raise their young. Most species will raise a single brood of chicks each year, although their timing varies, with some choosing the dead of winter to nest.

These birds win no prizes for nest building, and most simply lay their eggs in natural cavities, the abandoned nests of other birds, and sometimes on a cliff ledge or the bare ground. Clutch size varies between species, with anything from two to over a dozen eggs in a clutch.

Owl eggs may be laid over a long period, and since the eggs hatch on different days, the chicks can vary in age and size. Their young often leave the nest early, so it’s not unusual to see downy young Owls out and about before they are old enough to fly. These young birds may be fed by their parents for many months before gaining independence.

Owls are not exceptionally long-lived birds, although the larger species can live for up to three decades. Small Owl species generally live less than ten years.

Want to learn more about Owl reproduction? Check out this guide to learn more about Owl nesting and this guide to learn more about baby Owls.

Close up of a majestic Great Grey owl

Close up of a majestic Great Grey owl

Owls and Human Interaction

Few birds feature as prominently in myth and folklore as Owls. To this day, they are variously feared as harbingers of death and bad luck or the embodiment of witchcraft. Others consider them wise, although there is nothing particularly impressive about Owl intelligence!

The truth is that Owls are generally shy and wary around humans, although they often sit tight and rely on their impressive camouflage when approached during the day.

Many of the more common species have adapted well to human development, and some, like the Great-horned Owl, Tawny Owl, and Eastern Screech-Owl, are regularly seen in suburban areas.

Conservation Status of Owls

Owls are threatened by various human activities, but the loss of habitat due to deforestation, urbanization, agriculture, and other land use practices is a major risk to many species.

No less than four Owl species are already considered extinct, and many more are endangered and threatened, according to the IUCN Red List. Habitat specialists are most at risk, however, and some generalist species have adapted well to the changing world.

The Northern Spotted Owl is one of America’s most threatened species, and ironically, these range-restricted birds are suffering due to the rising numbers of another Owl species. Barred Owl numbers have increased in the traditional western stronghold of the Northern Spotted Owl, and the larger and more aggressive newcomers are dominating their habitat.

The Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is another threatened American Owl with a restricted range. These tiny desert Owls are threatened by habitat destruction caused by human activities such as grazing and urban development.

Two of the UK’s four native Owl species are on the Amber list of conservation concern. The Tawny Owl is believed to be undergoing a long-term decline, and the Short-eared Owl has become increasingly rare from the loss of suitable breeding habitats.

Northern Spotted owls are one of America’s most threatened species

Northern Spotted owls are one of America’s most threatened species

How You Can Help Owls

Many people would be surprised to know that Owls inhabit their neighborhoods in suburban and even urban areas. These birds can be encouraged by installing nest boxes to encourage them to breed.

Owls are a natural pest control solution, so think twice before using pesticides and rodenticides. These products may kill rats and mice, but some can also kill Owls and other predators that eat the poisoned rodents.

The most threatened Owl species are those that have not adapted to urbanization, and these birds rely on the work of charities and conservation authorities for protection.

Consider supporting conservation organizations, particularly those that work to educate land users and protect natural Owl environments and habitats.

A tiny Elf owl perched on a cactus

A tiny Elf owl perched on a cactus

Fascinating Owl Facts

  • The collective noun for a group of Owls is a ‘Parliament of Owls.’
  • Owls can turn their necks through 270 degrees on the horizontal plane and look behind them with their face completely upside down.
  • Owls have amazing eyesight, but their hearing is arguably even more impressive. It is said that Owls can hear some frequencies ten times better than we can.
  • Owls vary greatly in size. When fully grown, the tiny Elf Owl of North America weighs less than a Snowy Owl’s egg!
  • A single Owl can eat several rodents each night, totaling over a thousand each year. These birds are truly nature’s pest controllers.

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