Any of a group of mainly nocturnal birds of prey found worldwide. They have hooked beaks, heads that can turn quickly and far round on their very short necks, and forward-facing immobile eyes, surrounded by ‘facial discs’ of rayed feathers; they fly silently and have an acute sense of hearing. Owls comprise two families: typical owls (family Strigidae), of which there are about 120 species, and barn owls (family Tytonidae), of which there are 10 species. (Order Strigiformes.)
They feed mainly on rodents, but sometimes also eat reptiles, fish, and insects, and some species have been seen feeding on carrion. All species lay white eggs, and begin incubation as soon as the first egg is laid. They regurgitate indigestible remains of their prey in pellets (castings).
The tawny owl (Strix aluco) is a brown-flecked species of Europe and the Middle East; the little owl (Athene noctua) is the Greek symbol of wisdom and bird of Athena, found widely near human homes; the snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca) lives in the Arctic; the largest of the owls are the eagle owl (Bubo bubo) of Europe and Asia, and the powerful owl (Ninox strenua) of Australia, both up to 0.75 m/2.25 ft long. The worldwide barn owl (Tyto alba) was formerly common in Britain, but is now diminished by pesticides and loss of habitat. In Malaysia, it is used for rat control. The long-eared owl (Asio otus) is distinguished by its ear tufts, which are about 3 cm/1 in long. It feeds on small rodents and frequently birds up to thrush size, and is notorious for its habit of occupying other birds' nests.
Owls are distinguished from all other birds of prey, except the osprey, by the tarsus (ankle bone) being half the length of the tibia (shinbone), while the outer toe can be turned backwards or forwards at will. Another distinction is the absence of the aftershaft present in the feathers of all other hawks; this is a small accessory plume which springs from the underside of the main feather.
The short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) of North America, South America, Europe, and Asia is a streaked tawny colour, about 38 cm/15 in long; it hunts at dawn and dusk and roosts mainly on the ground. The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) of North and South America measures 56 cm/22 in, has long ear-tufts, and lives in forests, grasslands, and deserts.
A new species of pygmy owl, the cloud-forest pygmy owl Glaucidium nubicola, was discovered in 1999 rainforest in southern Colombia and northern Ecuador. It is 15 cm in height.
We're sorry this article wasn't helpful. Tell us how we can improve.