Most owls are elusive and nocturnal so getting a glimpse of one is always a rare treat. Luckily, there are around 250 species of owl sharing the Earth with us today, so your odds of seeing one are pretty good!
Knowing what habitats different owls prefer as well as their physical attributes can help you locate an owl near you.
Keep reading to learn the general characteristics all owls share, where owls live, as well as a guide to the different types of owls you may encounter.
Characteristics of Owls
While there are many different species out there, all owls share a few key characteristics.
Owls have large, forward-directed eyes, and each eye is surrounded by a tube of bone. This means that they have excellent vision – 35 times greater than ours – but are unable to move their eyes within their sockets. As a literal workaround, owls can turn their heads 270 degrees to compensate.
You may also see them bobbing their heads or wobbling side to side. While this looks comical, it is actually the owl working to get a better look. Like us, owls have binocular vision, meaning they use both eyes to judge the distance and position of objects in their environment.
The large size of their eyes – which are 2.2 times bigger than other birds of equivalent size – allows owls to see in very low light, which is a huge advantage considering most species are nocturnal.
The cornea, pupil, and lens are enlarged, there are more rods (light-sensitive elements) present, and the entire eye is elongated – all of this enables owls to capture every last lumen of light from their environment and produce a clear picture that is then processed by a specialized region of the brain known as a wurst.
Owls have exceptional control over their pupil dilation and, contrary to popular belief, can see in the daytime just fine – although most nocturnal species will avoid very bright sunlight.
Current research suggests they can also see in color. Owls are adapted to low-light environments but cannot see in total darkness. On very dark nights, they also rely on their superb hearing.
All owls have a facial disk, that is, a satellite-dish-shaped cup of feathers around their eyes. The movable feathers of the facial disk allow owls to collect sound, which is then funneled to the half-moon-shaped ear slits below the feathers to the large inner ear that extends deep into the skull.
Hearing is processed by a specialized region of the brain that is made up of many nerve cells. As a result, owls have excellent hearing – about 10 times better than our own.
Owls use their facial disks in much the same way that mammals use their external ears – to scan the environment for tiny squeaks or the faint rustling of leaves.
Some species, like the barn owls, have asymmetrical ears that provide even greater precision for locating prey. They may also use echolocation, but this is still being studied.
Most owls use their excellent vision in conjunction with their above-average hearing abilities when hunting prey. But hearing certainly comes in handy on very dark nights – or when prey is below the snow.
About 43% of all owls have ear tufts, also called plumicorns, which are curious projections of feathers on top of the head.
These tufts give the impression of ears or horns, and scientists are still baffled by them, but they have a few ideas about what they are used for. One thing is certain: they have nothing to do with hearing.
Ear tufts are likely used to express mood and serve as recognition symbols for other owls. In the dark of night, one owl may use the signature silhouette of a tufted owl head to determine another’s species.
This is especially handy in areas where eared and earless species overlap. The tufts can also be raised and lowered, which may be useful for communication between owls of the same species.
Ear tufts also come in handy for camouflage. When owls are roosting during the day, they hold their ear tufts erect which breaks up the rounded shape of their head and gives them the appearance of a jagged stump.
Owls also straighten their bodies and close their eyes when sleeping, making them nearly invisible. When disturbed at the roost, they flatten their feathers, erect their ear tufts, and close their eyes to slits so they can watch the intruder while remaining inconspicuous. It turns out owls are quite slim under all those feathers!
It’s thought that the ear tufts may also mimic the appearance of mammals like fishers and raccoons that frequently prey on owl nests, acting as an extra deterrent during threat displays.
Owl feathers are always earth-toned shades of brown, gray, cream, and rufous and are often mottled, spotted, or barred – all of which aid in camouflage. Camouflage is crucial for these primarily nocturnal birds that must sleep in plain sight during the day.
Most owl species exhibit some clinal variation; that is, their coloration changes slightly across the species’ range to match the habitat or climate. Generally speaking, owls of deep woodland areas are darker brown, owls of open areas and deserts are lighter, and owls of the snowy north are grayer and paler.
Most owls also possess specialized wing feathers that enable them to fly silently. These feathers have a comb-like leading edge, a fringed trailing edge and are fuzzy on top.
All of these adaptations dampen the rushing wind sound of flight, allowing owls to sneak up on unsuspecting prey. Their large, rounded wings also enable them to practically float, reducing the need for noisy flapping.
Some owls, typically diurnal species, have two dark eyespots on the backs of their heads. These spots are thought to deter mobbing behavior from songbirds and other birds.
Owls have down-turned bills. This prevents their bills from obstructing their limited field of vision. Bills are hooked for tearing flesh like most birds-of-prey but are not particularly strong. The fleshy cere at the base of the bill houses the nostrils and is often covered with bristly feathers.
All owls have four toes, and the outer toe of most species is reversible. The splayed arrangement of the toes maximizes grabbing power, and the sharp talons at the end of each toe ensure prey does not escape the deadly grip.
Most owls that feed on prey capable of fighting back with teeth and claws have feathered legs and toes. Northern species, like the Snowy Owl, also have heavily feathered feet that act as wool socks for these ground-perching owls that often sit on cold snow.
Owls that feed on weaker prey, like fish and insects, typically have bare legs and toes – but do have spiny or bristled appendages on the feet for gripping slippery prey.
Generally speaking, owls have an oval body shape with large, rounded heads. Most are medium-sized birds, but size extremes exist on either side, with the largest species being the two-foot-tall Eurasian Eagle-Owl and the smallest being the five-inch-tall Elf Owl.
In most species, females are slightly larger than males. This is likely due to the females’ egg-laying, incubation, and nest defense roles. Meanwhile, the smaller males are more agile, energy-efficient hunters.
Most owls are heard more than they are seen. While not true songbirds, owls are impressive vocalists – most species can hoot, bark, shriek, screech, scream, whistle, and some can perform caterwauling duets to announce their presence and defend their territories.
Owls do not open their bills to vocalize, and many nocturnal species add a visual cue to the call. The male Great Horned Owl, for example, puffs his white throat out in a ball shape while hooting. The resonant hoots of nocturnal species can travel great distances, even in dense forests.
Each owl has a unique voice that scientists can tell apart from sonograms. Owls can most certainly tell them apart, quickly able to tell a long-time neighbor from a new interloper.
All owls are carnivorous and opportunistic, with most feeding primarily on small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Some species are specialized fish eaters.
Surprisingly, 53% of all species feed mostly on insects. Prey type generally relates to the owl’s size: the larger the owl species, the larger the prey.
69% of all owls are fully nocturnal, meaning they are active at night and roost during the day. 22% are only partially nocturnal or crepuscular, meaning it’s possible to see one hunting or calling during the day or near dawn and dusk.
Only 3% of all owl species are diurnal, which means they are active during the day like most birds.
Generally speaking, owls are quiet, solitary creatures that hunt by stealth. But they do become territorial when breeding and vocalize intensely. Pairs are typically monogamous and will engage in allopreening, that is, mutual grooming of the face and head, during courtship.
Owls are fierce defenders of their nest and young. They spend most of their long lives hunting and vocalizing.
The majority of owls don’t migrate and stay in the same territory year-round.
Owls of the north may venture slightly southward to find prey in winter and, in some years, irruption events occur in which many individuals turn up in an area where prey is abundant. Some species, like the Flammulated Owl, are conventionally migratory.
Where Do Owls Live?
Most owls – about 75% of all species – live in forests, preferably those that are mature, dense, and undisturbed. They rely on woodlands for shade and protection while roosting, prey habitat, and nesting sites.
Unfortunately, deforestation due to direct human activity and climate change is a growing threat to most of the world’s owl species, and many have already gone extinct.
Some species also live in grasslands, deserts, tundras, marshes and swamps, and even urban environments.
Most owl species live in the tropics and subtropics, with 68% of all owls occurring in the Southern Hemisphere.
Some owls have adapted to life in the extreme north, and about 17% of all owls occur in North America and the Palearctic realm. Owls have a worldwide distribution and can be found on all continents – even on some of the world’s most remote islands.
The first birds evolved around 225 million years ago, and the first owls appeared around 56 to 65 million years ago. Currently, taxonomists believe that owls are most closely related to the nightjars and nighthawks – not the hawks or falcons like you might think.
The order Strigiformes is made up of around 250 species of known owls divided into two families: Tytonidae and Strigidae.
The family Tytonidae includes the oldest lineage of owls in its two genera. These are slender-bodied owls of medium size, easily distinguished by their predominantly pale coloration (often with rust-colored spotted backs), heart-shaped facial disks, and long legs.
Tytonid owls also lack ear tufts and have long, narrow skulls compared to other owls.
Tytonids are nocturnal, feeding primarily on small mammals. They are known for their excellent hearing – the best of all animals on Earth – and rely on their ears more than sight when hunting.
The family Tytonidae contains a total of 20 species in two genera: Tyto and Phodilus.
Genus Tyto (Barn Owls, Grass Owls, Masked Owls, Sooty Owls)
Owls of the genus Tyto (ancient Greek for “owl”) include the commonly encountered barn owls found worldwide as well as the similar-looking African and Australasian grass owls and masked owls.
Most members of the genus are a ghostly pale white to cream on the face and breast with black-spotted rusty brown backs. Sooty owls are mostly gray, and masked owls have dark faces.
They have heart-shaped facial disks, giving them a monkey-like appearance. Barn owls, in particular, are known for their ability to live alongside humans so long as there are open areas to hunt. They are also known for their raspy, hair-raising shriek, which inspired the myth of the banshee. There are 17 species in the genus Tyto.
List of Species
- Western Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
- Golden Masked Owl (Tyto aurantica)
- African Grass Owl (Tyto capensis)
- Andaman Masked Owl (Tyto deroepstorffi)
- American Barn Owl (Tyto furcata)
- Ashy-faced Owl (Tyto glaucops)
- Minahassa Masked Owl (Tyto inexspectata)
- Eastern Barn Owl (Tyto javanica)
- Eastern Grass Owl (Tyto longimembris)
- Manus Masked Owl (Tyto manusi)
- Lesser Sooty Owl (Tyto multipunctata)
- Taliabu Masked Owl (Tyto nigrobrunnea)
- Australian Masked Owl (Tyto novaehollandiae)
- Sulawesi Masked Owl (Tyto rosenbergii)
- Moluccan Masked Owl (Tyto sororcula)
- Red Owl (Tyto soumagnei)
- Greater Sooty Owl (Tyto tenebricosa)
Genus Phodilus (Bay Owls)
Though considerably smaller than their cousins in the genus Tyto, bay owls look remarkably similar. Instead of having heart-shaped facial disks, these owls have divided V-shaped faces, giving them a scowly look.
They also have groupings of feathers on their heads that create mini-horns but are not quite true ear tufts.
Phodilus owls are mostly brown with some dark markings. They live in dense evergreen forests and grasslands of southern Asia and parts of Indonesia and Africa. There are three species in the genus Phodilus.
List of Species
- Sri Lanka Bay Owl (Phodilus assimilis)
- Oriental Bay Owl (Phodilus badius)
- Congo Bay Owl (Phodilus prigoginei)
Most of the world’s owls fall within the large family Strigidae, also known as the typical owls or true owls. These owls evolved more recently than the ancient Tytonids and differ in several ways.
All Strigids have relatively large heads with round facial disks, cryptic mottled plumage, and large, rounded wings of considerable length compared to their body size. Size varies significantly from the tiny sparrow-sized Elf Owl to the toddler-sized Eurasian Eagle-Owl.
Most species are nocturnal, carnivorous, territorial, tree-dwelling, and monogamous, with a few notable exceptions. Some have ear tufts, and some do not. Strigids occur on every continent worldwide except for Antarctica. There are 230 species in Strigidae divided across 24 genera.
Genus Otus (Scops Owls)
Scops owls are only found in the Old World but superficially resemble the New World screech owls. They have small bodies and are very agile fliers, hunting small mammals and insects from perches in open woodlands. Most scops owls have brownish plumage, but hues range considerably.
The whistles and high-pitched hoots of scops owls are unique to each species. Otus is the largest genus of owls with 58 species – although three are now extinct.
List of Species
- Flores Scops Owl (Otus alfredi)
- Nicobar Scops Owl (Otus alius)
- Javan Scops Owl (Otus angelinae)
- Indian Scops Owl (Otus bakkamoena)
- Andaman Scops Owl (Otus balli)
- Biak Scops Owl (Otus beccarii)
- Raja Scops Owl (Otus brookii)
- Pallid Scops Owl (Otus brucei)
- Anjouan Scops Owl (Otus capnodes)
- Sangihe Scops Owl (Otus collari)
- Cyprus Scops Owl (Otus cyprius)
- Ryūkyū Scops Owl (Otus elegans)
- Enggano Scops Owl (Otus enganensis)
- Everett’s Scops Owl (Otus everetti)
- Annobón Scops Owl (Otus feae)
- Palawan Scops Owl (Otus fuliginosus)
- Réunion Owl (Otus grucheti) (extinct)
- Giant Scops Owl (Otus gurneyi)
- São Tomé Scops Owl (Otus hartlaubi)
- Sandy Scops Owl (Otus icterorhynchus)
- Sokoke Scops Owl (Otus ireneae)
- Seychelles Scops Owl (Otus insularis)
- Rinjani Scops Owl (Otus jolandae)
- Sunda Scops Owl (Otus lempiji)
- Collared Scops Owl (Otus lettia)
- Luzon Scops Owl (Otus longicornis)
- Torotoroka Scops Owl (Otus madagascariensis)
- Moluccan Scops Owl (Otus magicus)
- Sulawesi Scops Owl (Otus manadensis)
- Mantanani Scops Owl (Otus mantananensis)
- Mayotte Scops Owl (Otus mayottensis)
- Philippine Scops Owl (Otus megalotis)
- Banggai Scops Owl (Otus mendeni)
- Mentawai Scops Owl (Otus mentawi)
- Mindoro Scops Owl (Otus mindorensis)
- Mindanao Scops Owl (Otus mirus)
- Moheli Scops Owl (Otus moheliensis)
- Rodrigues Owl (Otus murivorus) (extinct)
- Negros Scops Owl (Otus nigorum)
- Arabian Scops Owl (Otus pamelae)
- Karthala Scops Owl (Otus pauliani)
- Pemba Scops Owl (Otus pembaensis)
- Palau Owl (Otus podarginus)
- Reddish Scops Owl (Otus rufescens)
- Rainforest Scops Owl (Otus rutilus)
- White-fronted Scops Owl (Otus sagittatus)
- Mauritius Owl (Otus sauzieri) (extinct)
- Eurasian Scops Owl (Otus scops)
- Japanese Scops Owl (Otus semitorques)
- African Scops Owl (Otus senegalensis)
- Siau Scops Owl (Otus siaoensis)
- Wallace’s Scops Owl (Otus silvicola)
- Socotra Scops Owl (Otus socotranus)
- Mountain Scops Owl (Otus spilocephalus)
- Sula Scops Owl (Otus sulaensis)
- Oriental Scops Owl (Otus sunia)
- Wetar Scops Owl (Otus tempestatis)
- Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni)
- Simeulue Scops Owl (Otus umbra)
Genus Ninox (Hawk-Owls, Boobooks)
Owls of the genus Ninox are, as the common name implies, very hawk-like in appearance, with pale chests striped in brown, dark backs, small heads, long tails, and V-shaped white eyebrows. Like most owls, they have excellent vision in low light.
As a result, the Australian Army named their night-vision goggles after the genus. Ninox owls are found throughout Asia and Australasia. The genus Ninox contains 35 species – although one species is now extinct.
Note: Despite the common name, the Northern Hawk-Owl is not considered part of this genus and is more closely related to the pygmy owls.
List of Species
- Laughing Owl (Ninox albifacies) (extinct)
- Andaman Hawk-Owl (Ninox affinis)
- Australian Boobook (Ninox boobook)
- Togian Boobook (Ninox burhani)
- Barking Owl (Ninox connivens)
- Tanimbar Boobook (Ninox forbesi)
- Timor Boobook (Ninox fusca)
- Buri Boobook (Ninox hantu)
- Halmahera Boobook (Ninox hypogramma)
- Cinnabar Boobook (Ninox ios)
- Northern Boobook (Ninox japonica)
- Camiguin Hawk-Owl (Ninox leventisi)
- Manus Boobook (Ninox meeki)
- Mindoro Hawk-Owl (Ninox mindorensis)
- Christmas Boobook (Ninox natalis)
- Morepork (Ninox novaeseelandiae)
- Hume’s Hawk-Owl (Ninox obscura)
- Ochre-bellied Boobook (Ninox ochracea)
- New Britain Boobook (Ninox odiosa)
- Luzon Hawk-Owl (Ninox philippensis)
- Alor Boobook (Ninox plesseni)
- Speckled Boobook (Ninox punctulata)
- Chocolate Boobook (Ninox randi)
- Sulu Hawk-Owl (Ninox reyi)
- Rote Boobook (Ninox rotiensis)
- Sumba Boobook (Ninox rudolfi)
- Rufous Owl (Ninox rufa)
- Cebu Hawk-Owl (Ninox rumseyi)
- Brown Hawk-Owl (Ninox scutulata)
- Mindanao Hawk-Owl (Ninox spilocephala)
- Romblon Hawk-Owl (Ninox spilonotus)
- Seram Boobook (Ninox squamipila)
- Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua)
- Little Sumba Hawk-Owl (Ninox sumbaensis)
- Papuan Boobook (Ninox theomacha)
- New Ireland Boobook (Ninox variegata)
Genus Glaucidium (Pygmy Owls)
Glaucidium comes from the ancient Greek word for “little owl.” As their name suggests, pygmy owls are small-bodied with long tails relative to their bodies. They are hawk-like in appearance, with white breasts streaked with brown and darker backs.
Pygmy owls typically feed on insects and other small prey in their forest habitats. Most are nocturnal, but there are a few exceptions, like the Northern Pygmy Owl of North America, which is diurnal. Pygmy owls can be found worldwide. There are 29 species in the genus Glaucidium.
List of Species
- Albertine Owlet (Glaucidium albertinum)
- Yungas Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium bolivianum)
- Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum)
- Northern Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium californicum)
- African Barred Owlet (Glaucidium capense)
- Javan Owlet (Glaucidium castanopterum)
- Chestnut-backed Owlet (Glaucidium castanotum)
- Guatemalan Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium cobanense)
- Costa Rican Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium costaricanum)
- Asian Barred Owlet (Glaucidium cuculoides)
- Mountain Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium gnoma)
- Central American Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium griseiceps)
- Amazonian Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium hardyi)
- Baja Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium hoskinsii)
- Andean Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium jardinii)
- East Brazilian Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium minutissimum)
- Pernambuco Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium mooreorum)
- Austral Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium nana)
- Cloud-forest Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium nubicola)
- Colima Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium palmarum)
- Subtropical Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium parkeri)
- Eurasian Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium passerinum)
- Pearl-spotted Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium perlatum)
- Pacific Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium peruanum)
- Jungle Owlet (Glaucidium radiatum)
- Tamaulipas Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium sanchezi)
- Cuban Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium siju)
- Sjöstedt’s Barred Owlet (Glaucidium sjostedti)
- Red-chested Owlet (Glaucidium tephronotum)
Genus Megascops (Screech Owls)
Screech owls are only found in the Americas. They are small but stocky and compact, having fairly large talons for their size. Screech owls are known for their large yellowish-green eyes, massive ear tufts (although they are less noticeable in some species), and complex whinnying vocalizations.
Their plumage color depends on the environment, and they range from gray and brown to the bright rufous of the Eastern Screech Owl red morph. Their earth-toned plumage is usually heavily mottled with black bars and streaks.
Screech owls rely on tree cavities, often old woodpecker holes, for nesting and therefore are mostly found in forests. They are accomplished perch hunters, taking a variety of small prey like insects and rodents. There are 25 species in the genus Megascops.
List of Species
- Alagoas Screech Owl (Megascops alagoensis)
- White-throated Screech Owl (Megascops albogularis)
- Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)
- Black-capped Screech Owl (Megascops atricapilla)
- Bearded Screech Owl (Megascops barbarus)
- Chocó Screech Owl (Megascops centralis)
- Tropical Screech Owl (Megascops choliba)
- Bare-shanked Screech Owl (Megascops clarkii)
- Pacific Screech Owl (Megascops cooperi)
- Santa Marta Screech Owl (Megascops gilesi)
- Middle American Screech Owl (Megascops guatemalae)
- Yungas Screech Owl (Megascops hoyi)
- Rufescent Screech Owl (Megascops ingens)
- Western Screech Owl (Megascops kennicottii)
- Koepcke’s Screech Owl (Megascops koepckeae)
- Cloud-forest Screech Owl (Megascops marshalli)
- Cinnamon Screech Owl (Megascops petersoni)
- West Peruvian Screech Owl (Megascops roboratus)
- Foothill Screech Owl (Megascops roraimae)
- Long-tufted Screech Owl (Megascops sanctaecatarinae)
- Balsas Screech Owl (Megascops seductus)
- Xingu Screech Owl (Megascops stangiae)
- Whiskered Screech Owl (Megascops trichopsis)
- Vermiculated Screech Owl (Megascops vermiculatus)
- Tawny-bellied Screech Owl (Megascops watsonii)
Genus Strix (Wood Owls, Earless Owls)
Owls of the genus Strix (named for the blood-sucking monster owl of myth) are medium to large. They are robust birds with large, rounded heads that lack ear tufts and have circular facial disks.
Strix owls are adept nocturnal perch hunters of dense forests the world over, feeding on mammals, birds, and reptiles.
Their complex vocalizations vary from species to species and are often key for identification. There are 23 species in the genus Strix.
List of Species
- Rufous-banded Owl (Strix albitarsis)
- Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)
- Omani Owl (Strix butleri)
- Chaco Owl (Strix chacoensis)
- Père David’s Owl (Strix davidi)
- Fulvous Owl (Strix fulvescens)
- Desert Owl (Strix hadorami)
- Black-banded Owl (Strix huhula)
- Rusty-barred Owl (Strix hylophila)
- Brown Wood Owl (Strix leptogrammica)
- Maghreb Owl (Strix mauritanica)
- Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa)
- Black-and-white Owl (Strix nigrolineata)
- Himalayan Owl (Strix nivicolum)
- Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis)
- Mottled Wood Owl (Strix ocellata)
- Rufous-legged Owl (Strix rufipes)
- Cinereous Owl (Strix sartorii)
- Spotted Wood Owl (Strix seloputo)
- Ural Owl (Strix uralensis)
- Barred Owl (Strix varia)
- Mottled Owl (Strix virgata)
- African Wood Owl (Strix woodfordii)
Genus Bubo (Horned Owls, Eagle-Owls)
The genus Bubo contains some of the world’s largest owls, like the Eurasian Eagle-Owl and the Blakiston’s Fish Owl, which both stand almost two feet tall. It also includes the well-known Great Horned Owl of the Americas.
Owls in this genus are known as “eagle-owls” in the Old World and “horned owls” in the New World.
Many species have prominent ear tufts, but a few, like the Snowy Owl, do not. Bubo owls are aggressive and formidable nocturnal hunters, taking a wide variety of prey.
Their plumage is heavily mottled and often features a variety of subtle colors like russet and cream. There are 20 species in the genus Bubo distributed worldwide.
List of Species
- Spotted Eagle-Owl (Bubo africanus)
- Pharaoh Eagle-Owl (Bubo ascalaphus)
- Indian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bengalensis)
- Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Bubo blakistoni)
- Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo)
- Cape Eagle-Owl (Bubo capensis)
- Greyish Eagle-Owl (Bubo cinarescens)
- Dusky Eagle-Owl (Bubo coromandus)
- Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl (Bubo lacteus)
- Akun Eagle-Owl (Bubo leucostictus)
- Lesser Horned Owl (Bubo magellanicus)
- Arabian Eagle-Owl (Bubo milesi)
- Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl (Bubo nipalensis)
- Philippine Eagle-Owl (Bubo philippensis)
- Fraser’s Eagle-Owl (Bubo poensis)
- Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)
- Shelley’s Eagle-Owl (Bubo shelleyi)
- Barred Eagle-Owl (Bubo sumatranus)
- Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
- Usambara Eagle-Owl (Bubo vosseleri)
Genus Athene (Little Owl, Burrowing Owl, White-browed Owl, Owlets)
Owls of the genus Athene (named for the goddess of the night) are small-bodied and long-legged. Their legs are bare and are often yellow in coloration. They have piercing yellow eyes, and their brown plumage is heavily speckled with white spots.
Athene owls are found in open forests and grasslands on most continents, but not in Australia, Antarctica, or Sub-Saharan Africa. They feed mostly on insects and small mammals.
Some members of the genus are fully or partly diurnal, like the Burrowing Owl and Little Owl. There are nine species in the genus Athene.
List of Species
- Forest Owlet (Athene blewitt)
- Spotted Owlet (Athene brama)
- Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
- Little Owl (Athene noctua)
- White-browed Owl (Athene superciliaris)
- West Solomons Owl (Athene jacquinoti)
- Guadalcanal Owl (Athene granti)
- Malaita Owl (Athene malaitae)
- Makira Owl (Athene roseoaxillaris)
Genus Asio (Eared Owls)
Asio owls are medium-sized with long wings and round facial disks. All species have ear tufts, with some being more pronounced than others.
These owls prefer more open habitats like grasslands for hunting but require some brush to roost in. Most are nocturnal, but some, like the Short-eared Owl, are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk). Asio owls can be found worldwide. There are nine species in the genus Asio.
List of Species
- Abyssinian Owl (Asio abyssinicus)
- Marsh Owl (Asio capensis)
- Striped Owl (Asio clamator)
- Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
- Jamaican Owl (Asio grammicus)
- Madagascar Owl (Asio madagascariensis)
- Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)
- Fearful Owl (Asio solomonensis)
- Stygian Owl (Asio stygius)
Genus Aegolius (Saw-whet Owls)
Owls of the genus Aegolius (from the ancient Greek word for “bird of ill omen”) are small and stocky with short tails and large, round facial disks that seem to take up half of their bodies.
They are nocturnal, mostly hunting rodents and other small mammals in the woodlands of colder temperate regions.
These owls have dark brown plumage on their backs – allowing them to blend in with their forested environments while roosting – and have lighter, speckled breasts.
Aegolius owls prefer coniferous forests but are also found in cloud forests, oak forests, and mixed mountain forests throughout the Americas and Eurasia.
They are known for their seemingly endless, repetitive high-pitched hoots said to sound like a saw being sharpened on a whetstone. There are four species in the genus Aegolius – although one is now extinct.
List of Species
- Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
- Boreal Owl/Tengmalm’s Owl (Aegolius funereus)
- Bermuda Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius gradyi) (extinct)
- Buff-fronted Owl (Aegolius harrisii)
- Unspotted Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius ridgwayi)
Genus Scotopelia (Fishing Owls)
The fishing owls are closely related to owls of the genus Bubo. They are large, nocturnal owls that lack ear tufts and have bare, unfeathered legs. Their plumage is shaggy brown on the back and paler on the breast.
True to their name, they feed primarily on fish, often swooping down and snatching them right out of the water – careful not to get their feathers wet. Their feet have spiky soles, which allow them to grip slippery fish. Amphibians, crabs, and crustaceans are also taken.
Unlike most owls, fishing owls do not have advanced hearing or silent flight owing to their aquatic prey. They have raspy hoots, and pairs often perform duets. Fishing owls are found in Sub-Saharan Africa. There are three species in the genus Scotopelia.
List of Species
- Vermiculated Fishing Owl (Scotopelia bouvieri)
- Pel’s Fishing Owl (Scotopelia peli)
- Rufous Fishing Owl (Scotopelia ussheri)
Genus Ketupa (Fish Owls)
Not to be confused with the fishing owls, owls of the genus Ketupa are native to Java, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. They inhabit forests and wetland areas with good tree cover. Fish owls are fairly large, typically with prominent ear-tufts on the sides of their heads and bare, bright yellow legs.
Due to their less-developed hearing, the facial disk is not as pronounced. Unlike most owls, the bill is set much higher on the face in between the eyes.
This gives fish owls an angry, scowly expression. Much like the fish-feeding owls of the genus Scotopelia, these owls also lack the ability to fly silently. There are three species in the genus Ketupa.
List of Species
- Tawny Fish Owl (Ketupa flavipes)
- Buffy Fish Owl (Ketupa ketupu)
- Brown Fish Owl (Ketupa zeylonensis)
Genus Pulsatrix (Spectacled Owls)
Spectacled owls are named for their pronounced white facial markings which create the illusion that they are wearing glasses. They have dark brown to black plumage on their backs with pale cream to buffy breasts, marked in some species and unmarked in others.
They are fairly large owls. Spectacled owls are nocturnal hunters, feeding mostly on small mammals in the dense rainforests of Mexico and South America.
Their young are unique looking with thick coats of pure white down, black faces, and bright orange eyes. There are three species in the genus Pulsatrix.
List of Species
- Tawny-browed Owl (Pulsatrix koeniswaldiana)
- Band-bellied Owl (Pulsatrix melanota)
- Spectacled Owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata)
Genus Taenioptynx (Owlets)
Owlets, as their name suggests, are small-sized owls with spotted untufted heads, eyespots on the back of their heads, gray-brown plumage, and heavy barring on their backs and sides. They have white eyebrow markings on their faces and bright yellow eyes.
Owlets look very similar to the closely-related pygmy owls and, like many of the pygmy owls, are diurnal. Owlets live in the mountain forests of Asia. There are two species in the genus Taenioptynx.
List of Species
- Collared Owlet (Taenioptynx brodiei)
- Sunda Owlet (Taenioptynx sylvaticus)
Genus Ptilopsis (White-faced Owls)
White-faced owls are small to medium-sized with black-tipped ear tufts and, as the name suggests, white facial disks bordered in black. They look similar to Great Horned Owls but are much smaller and have white breasts and red-orange eyes.
They feed on insects, small mammals, and birds. When threatened, these nocturnal owls will fold their wings across their chests in a vampiric gesture to hide their bright white plumage.
White-faced owls are native to the open forests and savannas of Africa. There are two species in the genus Ptilopsis.
List of Species
- Southern White-faced Owl (Ptilopsis granti)
- Northern White-faced Owl (Ptilopsis leucotis)
Genus Uroglaux (Papuan Hawk-Owl)
The Papuan Hawk-Owl is the only member of the genus Uroglaux. It is a medium-sized owl with a small head, small white facial disk, and yellow eyes.
It has a long tail and short, round wings. Unlike most owls, the male is larger than the female. Papuan Hawk-Owls feed on insects, rodents, and birds in the savannas and lowland rainforests of New Guinea. There is one species in the genus Uroglaux.
List of Species
- Papuan Hawk-Owl (Uroglaux dimorpha)
Genus Margarobyas (Cuban Bare-legged Owl)
The Cuban Bare-legged Owl is the only member of the genus Margarobyas. It is a relatively small owl with featherless green legs, dark eyes, no ear tufts, a light-colored facial disk, and brown bristles around its nostrils. This species is a nocturnal hunter that mainly feeds on insects.
The Cuban Bare-legged Owl prefers dry forests and stands of palm trees in its native Cuba and Isla de la Juventud. There is one species in the genus Margarobyas.
List of Species
- Cuban Bare-legged Owl (Margarobyas lawrencii)
Genus Micrathene (Elf Owl)
The Elf Owl is the world’s smallest owl. Grown individuals are about the size of a sparrow and fit easily in the palm of a hand. Elf Owls are reddish-brown on their backs and heavily speckled with white. They have pale yellow eyes, white eyebrows, and lack a well-defined facial disk.
These tiny, migratory owls inhabit deserts with large cacti and open woodlands of the southwestern United States, Baja California, and Central Mexico, nesting in woodpecker cavities. They are nocturnal insect feeders. There is one species in the genus Micrathene.
List of Species
- Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi)
Genus Xenoglaux (Long-Whiskered Owlet)
The Long-whiskered Owlet is the only member of the genus Xenoglaux (which means “strange owl”). It is a tiny brown owl with white eyebrows and a white breast and is named for the prominent whiskers that extend from the edges of its facial disk like eyelashes.
For its size, it has exceptionally large brownish-orange eyes. Like the closely related Elf Owl, Long-whiskered Owlets likely feed mostly on insects.
They live in only two small locations in the dense cloud forests of the Andean Mountains of Northern Peru. There is one species in the genus Xenoglaux.
List of Species
- Long-whiskered Owlet (Xenoglaux loweryi)
Genus Surnia (Northern Hawk-Owl)
The Northern Hawk-Owl is the only species of the genus Surnia. Unlike most owls, it is completely diurnal. Northern Hawk-Owls are not to be confused with members of the genus Ninox, which are also called hawk-owls. Taxonomically, Northern Hawk-Owls are large pygmy owls.
They have dark brown backs with white mottling, reddish barred breasts, yellow bills, and a dark V-shaped marking on the back of their necks.
As their common name suggests, they resemble small, tubby hawks – especially in flight. Northern Hawk-Owls feed on small mammals and birds. They live in open coniferous forests and fragmented forests across the Northern Hemisphere. There is one species in the genus Surnia.
List of Species
- Northern Hawk-Owl (Surnia ulula)
Genus Jubula (Maned Owl)
The genus Jubula consists of only one species: the Maned Owl. This is a distinctive medium-sized owl with reddish plumage, a large head, black “shoulders,” long crown feathers, and extremely long ear tufts that hang down to either side of its head.
The long ear tufts and head feathers give this owl a maned appearance. Maned Owls feed mostly on insects. They are native to the lowland tropical rainforests of Africa. There is one species in the genus Jubula.
List of Species
- Maned Owl (Jubula lettii)
Genus Psiloscops (Flammulated Owl)
The Flammulated Owl is the only member of the genus Psiloscops. It is unusual among owls, being a migratory species.
Flammulated Owls are named for the orange markings on their faces and backs that resemble flames. They are small owls with dark eyes and very tiny ear tufts that are usually not visible.
Flammulated Owls are nocturnal and feed on insects and small mammals in the forests of North America during summer and migrate south to northern Central America in the winter. There is one species in the genus Psiloscops.
List of Species
- Flammulated Owl (Psiloscops flammeolus)
Genus Gymnasio (Puerto Rican Owl)
The Puerto Rican Owl is the lone member of the genus Gymnasio. It is a medium-sized owl with bare legs and no ear tufts.
There are several color morphs, but the most common is brown across its upper half – front and back – and lighter and mottled on the lower breast below. It is an adaptable nocturnal owl that feeds on small mammals and insects in the dry forests as well as in urban areas of Puerto Rico.
There is one species in the genus Gymnasio.
List of Species
- Puerto Rican Owl (Gymnasio nudipes)
Genus Lophostrix (Crested Owl)
The Crested Owl is the only member of the genus Lophostrix. It is a medium-sized owl with white eyebrows that contrast with the black markings of its face, extremely long white ear tufts, and darker plumage elsewhere on its body.
It is a nocturnal owl that feeds on large insects and bats in the rainforests of Central and South America, exhibiting a preference for old-growth forests near water. There is one species in the genus Lophostrix.
List of Species
- Crested Owl (Lophostrix cristata)
Answer: Most conservationists agree that the endangered Blakiston’s Fish Owl is one of the rarest owls in the world. As a riparian species that feed on trout and salmon, Blakiston’s Fish Owls face the constant threat of habitat loss and depletion of their main food source due to overfishing.
The species is listed as endangered, and only 1,500 individuals remain in the wild. Several other owl species, including the Biak Scops Owl and Long-whiskered Owlet, are currently listed as endangered and are also considered rare.
Others, like the Pernambuco Pygmy Owl and the Siau Scops Owl, are down to only fifty total living individuals. Species reliant on large old-growth forests are particularly at risk.
Answer: The most commonly encountered and most widespread type of owl is the Barn Owl. It is found on every continent except Antarctica and lives in a variety of habitats, often making itself at home in urban areas.
Current data estimates a global population of 4,400,000 to 9,200,000 Barn Owls, combining the Western and American species.
Answer: The Rainbow Owl, said to have the Latin name of Strix mendacium, is a widespread internet hoax that describes the existence of a rare brightly colored owl native to the western United States and China. It is actually a photoshopped image of a Barred Owl.
Owls rely on cryptic coloration to hide during the day, so having bright rainbow plumage would be a huge detriment. Color would not be helpful in a visual display either, as nocturnal owls spend most of their lives in a dimly lit world of black, white, and gray.
There are many different types of owls flying silently through the night forests of the world – and a few out during the day, too! Use this guide to determine which species you are most likely to see.
Pay close attention to size, whether or not the owl has ear tufts, and behavioral clues like hunting from a perch at night or standing on the ground in daylight. Don’t forget to listen for any vocalizations you may hear!
- Gill, Frank B. (1995). Ornithology (2nd Edition). W.H. Freeman and Company.
- Mikkola, H. (2014). Owls of the World: A Photographic Guide. (2nd Edition). Firefly Books.
- Sibley, D.A. (2001). The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior (1st Edition). Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
IOC World Bird List (Owls):
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