Owls are some of the most unique-looking birds in the animal kingdom. You can identify them by their large, round, or heart-shaped faces, bright round eyes, and feathery, fluffy bodies. These creatures are primarily nocturnal, making hooting sounds. Some people find owls to be beautiful, while others find them a bit creepy. If you’re fascinated by the various owl species, you’ll appreciate this rundown of different types of owls with which we’re lucky enough to share our planet.
All at once, owls are mysterious, cute, and a bit spooky. Let’s explore some different owl species that highlight the diversity of these beautiful creatures.
You’ll mostly find this little owl in the eastern parts of the United States, northeastern Mexico, and southeastern Canada. The Eastern screech owl has a body length of between 6 to 10 inches. Its wingspan spreads to 10 inches wide. The Eastern screech owl is a bit smaller than the Western screech owl.
This owl is a small nocturnal animal possessing short ear tufts and yellow eyes. This screech owl species varies in color. Some of these owls come in gray, while others have a reddish-brown tone.
You’ll mostly find them out at night, and they generally enjoy residing in areas with lots of trees in forests, city parks, grasslands, and suburban yards. Eastern screech owls forage at dusk and night to satisfy their broad diet.
Although its name includes screech, this screech owl makes a descending tremolo call rather than a screeching sound. The bird hunts and feeds on small insects and large or small rodents. Some animals it goes hunting for include mice, beetles, small bird species, frogs, earthworms, and bats.
We also have the western screech owl with similar tufts and looks. Western screech owls and the whiskered screech owl look similar but slightly smaller. Screech owls populate western waterways and forested areas, while whiskered screech owls live in western central America.
Related: Ever wondered what the smallest bird in the world is? Check out our article on the 6 smallest birds in the world to find out.
The snowy owl, also called the polar owl or white owl, is one of the types of owls becoming rarer in the wild. Scientists estimate its population to be around 30,000 and consider the snowy owl vulnerable.
The snowy owl is native to the Arctic regions of Europe, North America, and Asia. These birds are also one of the largest owl breeds in Northern America.
Snowy owls have smooth, round heads with dense feathers on their legs. The snowy owl has cat-like yellow eyes and primarily feeds on lemmings. The bird shows up irregularly in the winter in some areas and appears regularly in other areas to hunt for its prey across landscapes covered with snow.
Snowy owl males and females have noticeable differences. The males are usually pure white, while the female owls are white with dark marks, except on the head. The snowy owl largely nests on the ground. They are usually silent unless nesting.
The burrowing owl is a small owl with long legs. Although not the smallest owl, this small owl measures around 7 to 10 inches tall. Unlike many owl species that take residence in trees, the burrowing owl mainly resides and nests in burrows.
This owl is endemic to Central and South America. You’ll also find them in North America, spanning southern Canada through Mexico.
This cute little owl has a round head. Burrowing owls' prey comprises mainly insects and small rodents. When hunting at night, it either flies or uses its long legs to sprint to capture prey. The burrowing owl is brown with small white spots. Like many a spotted owl, it also has yellow eyes.
The barn owl is the most common owl types worldwide. You can find this beautiful owl in almost all regions of the world. The exceptions are extreme polar regions due to extreme winter conditions that lead to poor food availability.
Barn owls have white faces with heart-shaped heads, making haunting sounds synonymous with horror films and creepy tales. The barn owl hunts openly at night. It also serves as a form of pest control since it feeds on rats, mice, and other rodents. During nesting, barn owls gather additional prey to feed their young. The barn owl has downy feathers and excellent hearing, which helps it capture prey with ease.
The great horned owl, also Bubo Virginianus, is native to the Americas. This owl has long ear tufts and bright yellow eyes to watch its environment. These owls are widespread and can easily adapt to regions they find themselves in.
One of the ways you can identify the great horned owl is through its hooting sounds. The bird’s hooting allows it to defend its nesting area while it nests. For this reason, many people also know the great horned owl as the hoot owl.
Great horned owls primarily go hunting at night and feed on a range of prey. This owl eats every part of its catch, including bones and fur. The great horned owl can feed on larger prey like other owls, snakes, and falcons. These owls also include rodents like mice, rabbits, and rats as part of their diet.
You’ll find this nocturnal owl mainly in tropical American forests. It takes residence in humid evergreen forests in Central America, South America, and Southern Mexico.
This owl has white markings around its eyes, giving it a spectacle-like look, which is how it earned its name.
The spectacled owl possesses a dark face, bright yellow eyes with white markings, and bright white throughout its fur. It’s hard to mistake this owl for any other owl species. These carnivorous owls eat practically anything active at night. Their diet includes insects, frogs, lizards, mice, and small mammals. These owls typically nest in unlined tree cavities. The young leave the nest for tree branches at around 5 to 6 weeks.
The Eurasian eagle-owl is a large owl with bright orange eyes and two tufts of feathers on its head. It has a body length of about 2 to 2.5 feet and a wingspan of 5 to 6 feet. You can find these true owls throughout Asia and Europe, occupying areas like mountains, forests, and even deserts.
The Eurasian eagle owl will nest in areas like cave entrances. They are great predators and feed on a wide range of animals. Some of the animals the Eurasian eagle owl takes as prey include snakes, insects, woodpeckers, and even larger prey like foxes.
The tawny owl is a chunky owl with a rounded head and body, dark, cute eyes, and a brown or gray body. You’ll mainly find this owl in Central Asia, Europe, and North Africa. These owls are territorial and will do anything to protect their nest.
These owls typically reside in woodlands in these regions. A tawny owl sometimes called a tawny fish owl, is mainly active at night but also sometimes during the day. These owls hunt for prey, including fish, frogs, earthworms, rabbits, and moles.
The southern white-faced owl is native to the southern half of Africa and is a relatively small owl compared to the large breeds. The southern white-faced owl is usually around 8.7 to 11 inches in length.
You can quickly identify this owl by its dominant white facial disk. Its border of black plumage also contributes to this owl’s beauty. One prominent feature that gives this owl a cute look is its face. Its feathers hang over its beak, giving it a mustache-like look. This owl feeds on spiders, scorpions, reptiles, small birds, and small mammals.
The Northern pygmy owl is one of the cutest owls. These owls are only about 6.5 inches tall, falling under the tiny or little owl category. The northern pygmy owl is not only small but also fluffy and round.
You can find this owl mainly in western North America. As it resides in western forests, this owl flies fast and low from tree to tree during the day. When the weather is warm, these cute owls feed on large insects like grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets. These owls have a diet that includes insects, rodents, and lizards.
Other pygmy owls include the Eurasian pygmy owl and the ferruginous pygmy owl.
The great gray owl, Strix nebulosa, is one of the tallest. The owls have body lengths of up to 27 inches. The great gray owl has a wingspan of over 4 feet and a body weight of 2 pounds or more. Its feathers add to its appearance to make it appear even larger.
These owls inhabit parts of northern Europe, Asia, Canada, Alaska, and the northwestern United States. Great gray owls have large facial disks with wide gray stripes around their eyes. Their bodies are typically silvery gray, patterned with brown, gray, and white streaking. These owls generally fly low and hunt during the nighttime.
As the name suggests, a long-eared owl has long ear tufts on top of its head. Long-eared owls are medium-sized owls that usually appear long and thin. They predominantly reside in North America. You can identify these owls with their buff-brown bodies and dark brown streaks around their bodies. Long-eared owls have bodies that help them camouflage themselves. These birds are nocturnal, and they make long, low hoots.
The Northern Hawk Owl is one of the few types of owl that we can only find active during the day. Not only does this owl share the name of a hawk, but the behavior of Northern hawk owls is similar. This owl lives in boreal forests and interestingly can spot its prey from more than half a mile away. Boreal owls nest in the tree in the forest they inhabit.
Loads of other types of owls share our world. The elf owl, for instance, is a tiny owl about the size of a small bird and has distinctive pale yellow eyes. While the short-eared owl sports tufts on its ears that tend to pop up when it is defending itself.
Many owls have spots, while some, like the barred owl, have stripes. And the Northern saw-whet owl has a face that looks a bit like a cat and bright yellow eyes like many others.
Across the many species of owl, habitat loss and human encroachment can threaten their existence in the wild.
As we’ve established, owls come in various shapes and sizes. You can find them in many parts of the world, like other birds. For instance, some might be native to countries like Canada and Mexico, while others are endemic to whole continents like Asia. If these birds intrigue you, you’ll be interested in exploring some of these owl facts.
Related: for more reading on the fascinating world of birds, check out our compilation of the best bird quotes from famous and not-so-famous bird appreciators. We've also got 22 more fascinating bird facts a click away.
#1: According to the Owl Research Institute, about 250 owl species exist globally. These various species of birds occupy all the continents except Antarctica, in its frozen state. As a result, one breed of owl can be prevalent in one location and scarce in another. Also, you’ll find various distinct-looking owls, including beautiful owls.
#2: People know these predatory birds for their hunting abilities, similar to other birds like eagles and hawks. In this light, these big birds fly across areas looking for prey to hunt, kill, and eat. Due to this behavior, owls are beneficial to farmers because they serve as a form of pest control for rodents. Depending on the breed, an owl will consume animals from small mammals to insects, reptiles, and snakes.
#3: Owls belong to the order Strigiformes. This order is divided into two families called Tytonidae and Strigidae. Tytonidae consists of barn owls and bay owls with heart-shaped faces, while Strigidae consists of typical or true owls with round faces, like the boreal owl. Interestingly, female boreal owls can weigh up to two times the males.
#4: Owls have excellent night vision and are far-sighted. As a result, they can locate prey from yards away. Since they’re far-sighted, objects up close are blurry to them. This makes them rely on hair-like feathers on their feet and beaks to feel prey that becomes food.
#5: You might be able to sneak up on other animals or creatures, but not owls. An owl’s eyes operate differently compared to many other birds. This distinctive bird can’t move its eyes. This is because its eyes are shaped like tubes, and bones hold these eyes rigidly in place. Instead, an owl’s adaptation technique is the ability to turn its neck 135 degrees in each direction. This gives these birds 270 degrees of total movement.
#6: An owl is unique because its flight is silent. When owls fly, it's impossible to hear the movement. They have special feathers that reduce turbulence into small currents as they fly. An owl’s feathers are soft, thereby allowing air to pass through its wings easily.
#7: Most owls are nocturnal - primarily moving around forests and other areas at night. However, depending on the species, they can be out during the day or night.
Read more: Owl facts.
Owls are some of the most distinctive birds in our world. If you initially thought all owls look the same, you now know that many different owl breeds populate different parts of the world.
Owls have unique physical features that make them appear both beautiful and spooky and are a source of fascination for many. Take a moment to stop and appreciate the owl and everything nature has to offer us. And perhaps head off in search of real-life colorful owls and admire them in their natural setting.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.