Let's explore the world of owl facts, the avian marvels that rule the night sky. You'll find them perched silently in the shadows, from the bustling city outskirts to the quiet country lanes and all the way from Arctic tundra to steamy rainforests, pretty much everywhere except the icy emptiness of Antarctica.
At roughly 250 species, these amazing birds are not all about treetop living; we also have the exceptional burrowing owl that digs life underground.
Owls are certainly not your average feathered friends. They boast an array of quirks and abilities that truly set them apart. Take their super-powered night vision, for instance, enabling them to spot a meal from miles away in the dead of night.
Keep on reading as we explore 17 unique facts about owls, or read up on our bird facts for more from the avian world.
Barn owls feed on wood mice, pygmy shrews, bank voles, house mice, field voles, and other small mammals. Sometimes, they also eat birds, amphibians, and fish. Barn owls swallow their prey whole, including their fur, feathers, bones, and teeth. However, a barn owl’s digestive tract cannot digest these parts like it digests flesh.
A barn owl’s digestive tract processes these digestive parts as pellets. They then regurgitate them out as large, smooth, and blackish pellets. The curious can observe these pellets at their nesting and roosting sites.
Not all owls hoot at night. Most owls hoot and make other sounds depending on the context of their situation (mating, claiming and defending their territory, etc.), while some other owls do not make a hooting sound. Owls make other sounds when surprised or threatened. Great horned owls let out high-pitched shrieks when they are attacking scary opponents. Barking owls emit loud screeches during the mating season.
Owls that don’t hoot are the barn owl, eastern screech-owl, burrowing owl, and northern saw-het owl. Barn owls make screeching sounds similar to those in horror movies. They use different variations of these shrieks to communicate and warn each other of incoming threats. Other sounds owls make are chirps, growls, clucks, whistles, bill-snapping, and barks.
The elf owl is the smallest owl among the owl species3. The grayish-brown bird weighs 40 g. It has a maximum length of 5 inches and a wingspan of 10.5 inches. Another characteristic of an elf owl is its long legs, with a similar appearance to bow legs.
Elf owls migrate in large groups, and we can find them in the Southwestern area of the United States in spring and summer. During winter, you’ll find them in central and southern Mexico. In the wild, an elf owl has a life span of 4 years; but they can live up to 10 years in captivity.
Read more about the different types of owls.
There are different feet and legs of anatomy in birds. Most bird species have four toes, with three facing forward and one facing the opposite direction. Other bird species have only forward-facing toes, known as tridactyl feet, while others only have two. Birds with only two toes have didactyl feet.
There are five toe arrangements in birds. They are anisodactyl, zygodactyl, heterodactyl, syndactyly, and pamprodactyl. Zygodactyl birds are birds with two toes (digits 1 and 4) facing backward and two toes (digits 2 and 3) facing forward. Unlike most other zygodactyl birds, owls can rotate their fourth toe to help with gripping and walking4.
A group of owls has many names, but they are mostly called a Parliament. However, it is extremely rare to find a group of owls. Owls are solitary birds, preferring to be on their own.
Owls have different nesting behaviors. Barn owls nest in tree cavities, caves, and barns, while other owls take advantage of other birds' nests. For instance, the great horned owl uses empty nests built by hawks, crows, magpies, and other birds.
The snowy owl puts a lot of effort into building its nests. Unlike barred owls, they do not build their own nests. Instead, they use cavities in trees, other bird’s nests, or human-made nests. They like to be 20 to 40 feet above ground.
Also, burrowing owls prefer to nest in the ground. Burrowing owls in Florida usually build their own ground nest. Still, other burrowing owls in other places prefer to use burrows dug by prairie dogs, ground squirrels, armadillos, and kangaroo rats to help keep baby owls safe from other predators.
Owls hunt using their sharp talons. Their feet’ bony structure is shorter and stronger than other birds. When owls hunt, they spread their talons wide to increase their chance of catching the prey. However, the talon length, thickness, and color vary among many owl species.
The great horned owl has the strongest talon out of all owls. They grip their prey with a tremendous force of about 500 psi, making them a formidable hunter. The force great horned owls exert with their talons is strong enough to break a human finger.
Their grip force is like that of a large guard dog, making it substantial enough to maim their victim permanently.
The law about owning an owl pet is next on our list of fun facts about owls. Some countries banned owning owls as pets, while some require special licenses to keep an owl. For instance, the United States only permits trained and licensed individuals to keep owls. Owls are not pets; individuals cannot own owls.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Administration handles owls. They can take an owl back into their custody if they think that is best for it. Most countries make it illegal to keep owls as pets because of the difficulties of owning one.
Owls are apex predators, so you will need special equipment to handle them. For example, you will need a large metal cage instead of a wooden one because its talons are sharp enough to destroy anything lesser. Also, owls can injure you if handled carelessly.
The general knowledge we all have is that owls are nocturnal. However, not all owls are nocturnal. Two species of owls are diurnal. The diurnal owls are the northern hawk owl and the northern pygmy owl.
Unlike nocturnal owls, they are active during the day. You will find the northern hawk owl in northern parts of North America and Asia, while the pygmy owl is on North America’s West Coast.
Apart from nocturnal owls, there are owls that are active during the day and at night. The term for these types of owls is crepuscular. Crepuscular owls are snowy owls, burrowing owls, great gray owls, and short-eared owls.
Owls have well-developed eyes shaped like a tube instead of eyeballs. It doesn't move around in their bony eye sockets as eyeballs move. Owls rotate their heads up to 270° left and right to substitute their lack of eye movements.
Their eyes make up 5% of their body weight. Owls' eyes are a striking part of their appearance, making them appear wise. They have three eyelids which help them protect their eyes from outer elements.
They have binocular vision, which allows them to see in three dimensions and perceive distance like humans do. To understand this better, an owl has a field view of 180°, and 140° is binocular vision. Also, owls have superb night vision. Some owls see better in bright light than humans.
Some owls sleep during the day and are active at night, while others are active during the daytime but sleep at night. An owl’s eye color helps us differentiate between these two types of owls.
Nocturnal owls have darker eyes than their diurnal counterparts2. Owls that are active during the day have orange or yellow eyes. For instance, the barred owl has dark eyes, while a snowy owl has orange eyes.
Owls have great hearing, and this is possible because of their asymmetrical ears. Their ear openings are directly behind their eyes, with the left ear placed slightly higher than the right ear. For instance, barn owls have a higher left ear. During an owl’s flight, the left ear receives sounds beneath them, while the right ear receives sounds above them.
Owls' hearing is more sensitive than other birds'. They have a hearing frequency of 5 kHz and above. Studies show that barn owls use sound frequencies above 8.5 kHz to catch prey. Besides their eyesight, many owl species rely on their hearing while hunting.
One of the more well-known owl facts is that they are night birds with excellent night vision. Their eyes have a lot of tightly packed retinal rods. Although many retina rods disrupt their ability to see color, it enhances their night vision. They have a layer of tissue behind their eyes known as tapetum lucidum, a retroreflector that reflects visible light through the retina.
It allows owls to keep light, sending it to the photoreceptors and enhancing their sights at night. There is a common misconception about owls' eyesight during the day. Most assume that owls cannot see during the day because of their excellent night vision. However, it’s not true because their pupils can adjust to lights at different levels.
The great gray owl is the largest species of owl based on its length. It can grow as long as 33 inches, with a maximum weight of 1500 g. The great gray owl has a wingspan that can grow over 152 cm, with an average of 142 cm in female owls. Sexual dimorphism applies to the great gray owls, whereby female owls are larger than their male counterparts.
The Eurasian eagle owl is one of the largest owls in terms of wingspan. It has a wingspan of about 180 cm, and its weight ranges between 1.4 kg to 4 kg.
Last, Blakiston's fish owls weigh almost 5 kg, with a length of 72 cm. The female owl weighs a maximum of 4.6 kg, while male owls weigh an average of 3.6 kg.
The Cuban giant owl is the largest recorded owl fossil in history. Researchers estimated its length to be 1.1 m and a weight of about 13.5 kg.
Eurasian eagle owls are formidable hunters who are not picky about their meals. They watch their prey from the cavities and branches of tall trees, rock formations, and hills. The group of feathers, also known as a facial disk, helps direct the sounds of their prey to their ears.
Eagle owls eat rodents, birds, amphibians, and other small mammals. Research conducted to monitor the owl's diet showed rodents made up 42.56% of its diet, while birds comprised 59.3%, and mammals made up 40.1% of its diet1.
The Eurasian eagle owl is also an opportunistic feeder. It consumes surprisingly large prey sometimes. They attack large prey like the black kite, hedgehogs, young foxes, European badger, Egyptian mongoose, etc.
Finally, in our list of owl facts is their digestive system. As mentioned earlier, owls consume their prey whole, regardless of the prey's fur, teeth, feathers, and nails. They can process these indigestible parts because they have two stomachs.
Owls do not have a crop, a loose sac in the throat that stores food for later. So, all they consume goes directly into their intestines. The first stomach, known as proventriculus, produces acid, enzymes, and mucus that kick-starts the process of digestion.
The second stomach is the muscular stomach, also known as the ventriculus or gizzard. It serves as the filter as it doesn't have any digestive glands. The gizzard filters the bones, hair, fur, and other indigestible parts of an owl's meal into pellets.
Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with O.
Sándor, Attila & Bugariu, Sebastian. (2008). Food habits of the Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo) in Cheile Dobrogei Gorge. Scientific Annals of the Danube Delta Institute. 14. 69-74.
Passarotto, A., Parejo, D., Cruz-Miralles, A., & Avilés, J. M. (2018, October 10). The Evolution of Iris Colour in Relation to Nocturnality in Owls. Wiley Online Library.
König, K., Wieck, F., & Becking, J. H. (1999, November 10). Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World. Yale University Press.
Sibley , D. A. (2001, October 2). The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. Alfred A. Knopf.
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.