Owl, a bird of prey found in most parts of the world except Antarctica. Owls have large eyes and round faces. Many kinds of owls have two tufts of feathers (called ear tufts, though they are not part of the ears) on the top of the head. The number of owls is becoming smaller because the woodlands in which they live are being destroyed.

Owls vary widely in size according to the species. The females are slightly larger than the males. Like most birds of prey, owls have hooked beaks and curved talons (claws). The birds are mostly brown or mostly gray and many kinds are barred or speckled. Owls have stout bodies, rounded wings, and short, square tails.

OwlsOwls have hooked beaks and curved talons.

Many owls are active only at night. Because of their keen senses of sight and hearing, they can hunt successfully in dim light or in the dark. Night-hunting owls can also see in daylight. An owl must turn its head in order to see in any direction other than straight ahead. It can turn its head completely around so that it can see directly behind it.

In some species the two ear openings, located on the side of the head behind the facial feathers, are of different shape. This difference helps the owl find the direction from which a sound is coming. Owls' feathers are soft and edged with small, hairlike filaments that deaden the sound of their flight. Their silent flight helps owls to surprise prey.

Owls are associated in legend with wisdom and with evil spirits. Their reputation for wisdom was probably suggested by their round faces and eyes. Superstition considers owls to be evil spirits forewarning of evil events. This reputation probably comes from their haunting calls, silent flight, and tendency to nest in deserted buildings.

Owls kill many rodents that are nuisances to man. When food is scarce, owls occasionally raid poultry yards and eat game birds, but in general, they do more good than harm.

How is an Owl a Bird of Prey?

Like other birds of prey, owls have bodies that are especially well adapted for hunting and killing animals. Owls have powerful legs and feet. They also have sharp claws, or talons, that can pierce and grab small animals. Most owls have feathers on their legs and toes. The feathers protect them from cold—and from prey that might bite back.

Birds of prey have sharp, curved bills that are very strong. The upper and lower parts of the bill can work like powerful scissors to tear and cut meat. Owls swallow small prey whole.

Where in the World Do Owls Live?

There are more than 140 different kinds of owls. Owls live almost everywhere in the world where there is land, except Antarctica and some islands.

Grasslands are home to some kinds of owls. These owls include barn owls, great horned owls, and burrowing owls. Great horned owls, burrowing owls, and elf owls can also survive in the desert, where there is little or no rainfall.

Spotted owls live in forests of spruce or fir. Many owls live in different kinds of woodlands. The barred owl and the great gray owl live in hardwood forests. Northern hawk owls like the open woods.

One owl, the snowy owl, even lives on the frozen tundra. The tundra is a large, almost flat plain of the Arctic region. There are no trees in the tundra.

How Do Feathers Help Owls Hear?

Those tufts of feathers that stick up like ears on an owl’s head aren’t ears at all. No one knows what they are for. An owl’s large ear openings are at the sides of its head. The stiff feathers around the eyes act a lot like dish antennas. They reflect sound toward the ear openings.

Suppose an owl hears an animal sound. The sound is louder in one ear than in the other. This tells the owl that the animal is closer on that side. The owl turns its head until the sound is equally loud in both ears. Then it knows it is facing the animal.

An owl can also “hear” the height of a sound. It turns and tilts its head until it gets a perfect “fix” on where the sound is coming from. Owls eat mostly small animals that creep through grass and leaves on the ground. An owl’s keen ears can hear the tiny sounds of prey—even when those sounds come from under snow.

Who-o-o Is It?

It’s not easy to spot an owl. But you may be able to hear one.

Different kinds of owls have many different calls. Some, like this great horned owl, seem to say “who-o-o, who-o-o” when they hoot. Others whistle, hiss, click, or chatter. One even makes a rasp that sounds like a rattlesnake. An owl hoots to claim its territory and to attract a mate. The word owl may in fact come from the hooting sound that the bird makes.

In the sign language of some Native American groups, the word for owl was formed with the hands. The sign is made by spreading fingers at each shoulder and flapping them. (This is the general sign for bird.) Then, to specify owl, the signer uses thumbs and index fingers to form two circles, which are put over the eyes.