What are owls called?


When it comes to the diverse world of birds, one species that has always captivated the human imagination is the owl. Known for their unique appearance, exceptional hunting abilities, and haunting hoots, owls have long been a subject of fascination for people of all ages. However, have you ever wondered what these magnificent creatures are actually called? In this article, we will explore the various names used to refer to owls and delve into the intriguing world of these nocturnal birds.

The Common Name: Owl

The most widely recognized and commonly used term to refer to these birds of prey is simply “owl.” This name is derived from the Old English word “ūle” or “owl,” which can be traced back to the Proto-Germanic word “uwwalon.” The term has been used in various languages throughout history, including German (“Eule”), French (“chouette”), and Spanish (“búho”).

The Scientific Name: Strigiformes

While the common name “owl” is universally understood, scientists classify owls under the order Strigiformes. This taxonomic classification encompasses around 230 species of owls, ranging from small owlets to large eagle owls. The order Strigiformes is further divided into two families: Tytonidae (barn owls) and Strigidae (true owls).

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The Categorization of Owls

Owls belong to the avian order Strigiformes, which can be further categorized into various subgroups based on their characteristics and adaptations. Let’s explore some of the different ways owls are classified:

1. Barn Owls (Family: Tytonidae)

Barn owls are one of the two main families of owls and are known for their heart-shaped facial discs and unique screeching calls. Some of the most well-known species in this family include the common barn owl (Tyto alba) and the barn owl (Tyto furcata). These owls have distinct features that separate them from other owl families.

1.1. Common Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

The common barn owl, also known as the barn owl or the ghost owl, is a widespread species found across all continents except Antarctica. It is characterized by its pale plumage, heart-shaped facial disc, and silent flight. These owls primarily feed on small mammals, such as mice and voles.

2. True Owls (Family: Strigidae)

The second major family of owls is known as true owls. This family comprises a wide variety of owl species, each with its own unique characteristics and adaptations. Some of the most well-known true owl species include the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus), and the spotted owl (Strix occidentalis).

2.1. Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

The great horned owl, also known as the tiger owl or hoot owl, is one of the largest owl species found in North and South America. It is characterized by its prominent ear tufts and piercing yellow eyes. These owls are formidable predators and have a diverse diet, which includes small mammals, birds, and even other owls.

2.2. Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

The snowy owl is a majestic species known for its striking white plumage, which provides excellent camouflage in its Arctic habitat. These owls have a wide distribution across the northern regions of North America, Europe, and Asia. Snowy owls primarily feed on lemmings and other small rodents, but they can also take down larger prey when necessary.

2.3. Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis)

The spotted owl is a medium-sized owl species native to the dense forests of North America. It gets its name from the distinctive spots on its plumage, which help it blend in with tree bark. Spotted owls are known for their preference for old-growth forests and are considered an indicator species for the health of these habitats.

Unique Owl Species and Names

Aside from the major families and species mentioned above, there are several unique owl species that deserve a closer look:

1. Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi)

The elf owl is the smallest owl species in the world, measuring only around 5-6 inches in height. These tiny owls are found in the southwestern United States and Mexico. They have a unique call that resembles the sound of a horse’s whinny, earning them the nickname “whinnying owl.”

2. Spectacled Owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata)

The spectacled owl is a striking species known for its bold facial markings, which resemble a pair of spectacles. These owls inhabit the dense forests of Central and South America and primarily feed on small mammals and birds. The spectacled owl’s distinctive appearance has made it a popular subject of folklore and mythology in the regions where it is found.

3. Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)

The burrowing owl is a fascinating species known for its unique nesting habits. Unlike other owls that nest in trees, burrowing owls create their homes in underground burrows, often repurposing those abandoned by small mammals. These owls can be found in open grasslands and deserts across North and South America.

4. Long-Eared Owl (Asio otus)

The long-eared owl is a medium-sized owl species with distinctively long ear tufts. These tufts are not actually ears but rather feathers that help the owl blend in with its surroundings and provide camouflage. Long-eared owls are found across Europe, Asia, and North America and primarily feed on small mammals.

5. Snowy-Browed Owl (Xenoglaux loweryi)

The snowy-browed owl is an elusive and rare species discovered in the cloud forests of the Andes mountains in Peru. It is known for its unique facial markings, including bold white eyebrows. Due to its remote and inaccessible habitat, very little is known about the behavior and ecology of this species.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1: How many species of owls are there?

A1: There are approximately 230 known species of owls worldwide.

Q2: What is the largest owl species?

A2: The largest owl species is the Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo), which can have a wingspan of up to six feet.

Q3: Can owls turn their heads all the way around?

A3: While it is a common misconception, owls cannot turn their heads all the way around. However, they have an exceptional range of motion, with the ability to rotate their heads up to 270 degrees.

Q4: Do all owls hoot?

A4: No, not all owls hoot. While hooting is a common vocalization among many owl species, some owls communicate through other calls, such as screeches, hisses, or whistles.

Q5: Are owls active during the day or night?

A5: The majority of owl species are nocturnal, meaning they are most active during the night. However, some species, such as the burrowing owl, are active during the day as well.

Q6: How far can owls see in the dark?

A6: Owls have excellent night vision and can see in almost complete darkness. Their large eyes and specialized adaptations allow them to gather and process available light more effectively than humans.

Q7: Are owls considered symbols of wisdom?

A7: Yes, owls have long been associated with wisdom and knowledge in various cultures and mythologies. This association can be attributed to their keen senses, silent flight, and enigmatic nature.


Owls, with their diverse species and captivating characteristics, continue to intrigue and fascinate both bird enthusiasts and casual observers. Whether they are called owls, barn owls, or by their scientific name Strigiformes, these nocturnal birds of prey possess a unique charm that sets them apart. From their distinct facial features to their remarkable hunting abilities, owls are a testament to the wonders of nature. So, the next time you hear the haunting hoot of an owl, take a moment to appreciate the rich diversity and fascinating world of these remarkable creatures.

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