Owls are fascinating birds of prey with characteristics that set them apart from most other types of birds. There are 19 species of owls living in the wild in the U.S., but worldwide there are over 200 species. Beyond their reputation of being wise and great hunters, there are even more interesting things to know about owls. Read on to discover just how unique owls really are.
Owls are primarily nocturnal birds classified into one of two families, Tyonidae and Strigidae. Barn owls are the only species in the Tyonidae family. All other owls belong to the Strigidae family. All owls share certain characteristics such as excellent hearing and vision, silent flight, and a hooked beak. A few fun facts include:
- A group of owls is called a parliament. This name was derived from the book series The Chronicles of Narnia written by C.S. Lewis.
- The smallest Elf Owl is only about 5 inches tall, while the Great Gray Owl can grow to be 32 inches long.
- Not all owls hoot. Their sounds vary; Barn owls make hissing noises while the Saw-whet Owls sound like a saw.
- Owl fossils date back in time to 55 million years ago and the largest one stood three feet tall.
- Parent owls work in tandem to care for their owlets. They lay up to 14 eggs per brood. The male delivers food to the female who tears it up for the babies.
The one thing all owls have in common is that they are built to be incredibly successful hunters.
What Do Owls Eat?
Owls are carnivorous and eat rodents, small to medium-sized mammals, insects, fish, and other birds, even smaller owls. Most owls eat their food whole or in large chunks. Then, after their meal is digested, owls regurgitate hard pellets made up of the indigestible parts of their prey like bones, fur, and teeth.
Owls Are Built For Hunting
Owl eyes are built similarly to human eyes in that they are forward-facing, giving them binocular vision. Unlike our eyes, theirs are not spheres but tubes that provide owls with better depth perception. This allows these avians to notice prey from great distances.
However, tube-shaped eyes mean that an owl’s eyes can’t move in different directions. To solve this problem, owl necks adapted so as to be able to turn up to 270 degrees. This allows them to scan a field for suitable small animals and to track a moving target.
In addition, owls are equipped with a trait called “eyeshine.” It gives their eyes an orange-red glow at night that allows them to see in the darkness.
Owls’ feet are built with sharp talons. Two of their toes point forward and two point backward giving them a powerful grip on their prey that lessens the chance it will squirm free.
The ears of many owl species are asymmetrical and of different sizes and heights on their heads. This trait provides superior hearing, allowing them to pinpoint where their quarry is even when they can’t see it.
Owls also have flattened facial disks that funnel the sound to their ears and magnify it. Owls can easily detect sounds that humans cannot hear, like that of a rodent scurrying in the underbrush.
Owl feathers have specialized fringes that vary in softness to divert the air and help muffle the sound of their wing beats. These birds are nearly silent fliers as they approach their target.
Owls in Different Ecosystems
Owls live in almost every type of environment: deserts, forests, woodlands, farmlands, and suburbs.
One of the most common desert-dwelling owls is the Great Horned Owl. Owls living in this ecosystem eat small mammals, birds, lizards, snakes, and even scorpions. Other owls living here include the Flammulated Owl and Whiskered Screech Owl. Owls that live in the desert typically have large hearts and lungs so they can survive for long periods of time without water. Furthermore, their higher metabolic rate gives them the ability to burn food quickly to provide greater warmth in cold desert nights.
Farmlands & Grasslands
Barn owls are named as such because many farmers put up owl boxes to deliberately attract them. On a farm, a barn owl can eat up to 1,000 rodents annually. They’ll also eat other farm pests such as moles and other small burrowing mammals that ruin the roots of crops.
These same small mammals can be found living in grassy regions, where they can be easily detected by owls. Another species, the Short-eared Owl, needs an open landscape like grasslands to survive. This species is one of the few diurnal owls. It likes to fly low along the ground to locate small mammals, often hovering before it drops down on its prey. Grasslands also attract Burrowing Owls as the long grasses in this environment hide their nests well.
Forests & Woods
Forests and woods abound with owls as this environment affords them a multitude of small mammal species a bit larger than mice including squirrels, skunks, and rabbits. This type of landscape also often has small streams and ponds where owls can grab fish. Typical forest and woodland species include Saw -Whet Owls, Long-Eared Owls, and Screech Owls.
Cities & Suburbs
In urban environments, owls can easily see mammals such as mice and chipmunks dashing across manicured lawns. These avian hunters will also catch birds eating from bird feeders. Eastern and Western Screech Owls and Barred Owls do well in cities and around human houses. Additionally, sometimes a Snowy Owl will take up residence at an airport or other large, open, concrete area that mimics its more usual tundra-like habitat.