Everything about owls is remarkable. Large eyes with binocular vision, facial disks around the eyes that funnel sound more acutely, ears that are asymmetric for better sound coverage, feathers structured for silent flight, a neck that can rotate, and powerful talons for skull-crushing.
There are over 200 species of owls in the world, living on all continents except Antarctica.
They are classified into two different families, Strigidae and Tytonidae, with about 19 owl species in North America, 42 in Africa, and 13 in Europe. South America, 55; India, 30; Australia, 11. Sources differ in numbers. (Range map below.)
With hundreds of owl species there are many exceptions, but for the most part, they are nocturnal birds. Carnivorous, preying on rodents, small mammals, and insects, many species can be seen hunting at dawn or dusk.
Although all owls have a similar shape, they vary widely in size. I have seen the world’s lightest owl, no bigger than the size of my hand, appropriately called the Elf Owl (in Arizona). They weigh 1.4 ounces (40 g). I’ve also seen the largest owl in Africa, the Giant Eagle Owl, pictured second above. It was 26 inches tall (66 cm).
The most common owl worldwide is the barn owl, in a family of its own, Tytonidae.
You can’t hear a thing when an owl flies. Each leading feather is serrated, making the wingbeat silent. The rest of the flight feathers have soft, velvety edges absorbing any other sound during movement. This allows the owl to surprise and capture prey.
I’ve been out in the dark looking for owls when one has flown past me and I didn’t even know it.
Although owls are elusive and often camouflaged, it is possible to see them in the wild. I’ve provided two links, below, for locating the owls in your area.
I have spent many hours “owling” at night with guides, but have also found many species while hiking without a guide. They’re usually in the woods, you have to look up in the trees and be quiet. Cities with large parks have owls too.
A good way to become familiar with the owl species in your area is to visit your local raptor or bird rescue centers, they often rehabilitate injured owls. They may have information, too, where wild owls have been spotted.
I once lived near a small natural history museum–Randall Museum–in San Francisco, visited their permanently-injured owls frequently.
The subject of much folklore, owls have mystified humans for centuries. They are mesmerizing to watch, magical to hear, and possessing skills like no other bird.
When you do see an owl, you don’t forget it.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander, all owls in the wild (except Wikipedia barn owl)
The Owl Pages — owls worldwide. Enter your country in the Search bar.
owling.com — North and Central American owls