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8 Most Widespread and Distinctive Species of Owls in the World

Owl is any of approximately 150 species of chiefly nocturnal birds of prey. They are recognized by their large heads, flat faces, and forward-facing eyes. Some species have earlike tufts of feathers. Owls belong to two families: the barn and grass owls (Tytonidae), with 11 species; and the typical owls (Strigidae), with about 140 species. Worldwide in distribution, the two families are closely related and share most characteristics.

Ecologically, owls are the nocturnal counterparts of hawks and eagles, but the two groups are not related. Similarities, such as sharp talons, a hooked bill, and mottled brown plumage, are the result of convergent evolution fitting each group to a similar predatory role.

Owls feed exclusively on animals -from insects, crabs, fish, and reptiles to birds and mammals. Rodents are an important part of the diet of many species. Owls usually swallow their food whole. Indigestible matter, such as fur, feathers, and bone, are regurgitated later in large pellets that are a useful indicator of the presence of owls and of their diet.

Most owls are active only at night, although they can see well in daylight. Species inhabiting high latitudes, where in summer the hours of darkness are few, if any, are usually active by day. In absolute darkness an owl's vision is no better than that of a human. Owls, however, have very acute hearing. Experiments with common barn owls (Tyto alba) have shown that in total darkness they can locate their prey by sound.

The plumage of owls varies, but the majority of species are mottled brown, making them less conspicuous in daylight. In most species the sexes are similar, though the females usually are slightly larger and heavier. Two color phases, such as the red and gray forms of the screech owl, occur in a number of species. The feathers are soft, to muffle sound.

Another adaptation for silent flight typical of owls is the serrated outer edge of the leading flight feather on each wing; this reduces the amount of noise made by air passing over the wing. The ear tufts (horns) on some species of Strigidae, such as the long-eared owl (Asio otus) and great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), are feathers used in display and have nothing to do with the actual ear.

Owls range in size from that of a sparrow to almost the size of an eagle. The North American elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi) is the smallest in the world. In North America the largest species is the great gray owl (Strix nebulosa), but the heaviest is the snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca).

For their size, owls have particularly large heads, required to contain their large eyes and ears. The eyes face forward. To increase their field of vision, owls can turn their heads up to 270°.

Owls are characterized by facial disks -triangular or heart-shaped in Tytonidae and round in Strigidae. These disks of feathers are believed to function like parabolic reflectors, collecting and focusing sound waves, and may help the owl hear even extremely weak sounds. The ears, invisible underneath these feathers, are large and complex. In several species they are placed asymmetrically, which is thought to help locate sounds.

The voices of owls vary from the well-known hooting of great horned and barred owls (Strix varia) to the whistles of screech owls and the hissing and barking of other species. Owls are most vocal at night, in late afternoon, and at dawn. Many will reply to an imitation of their call.

Most owls live in trees, although some are adapted to tundra, desert, grasslands, and swamps. The majority are sedentary. In North America the most regular migrants are the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) and the short-eared owl (Asio flammeus). Far northern species, the most notable being the snowy owl, stage periodic irruptions (movements south in large numbers) when their prey becomes scarce.

The breeding of owls is timed to take advantage of the availability of abundant food for the young. Some species, including the common barn owl and the short-eared owl, will nest in winter if prey is common. Others, such as the great horned owl, begin nesting in late winter so that their young can be supplied with easily available food in early summer.

Most owls nest in holes in trees, rocks, or buildings or use the old nests of other large birds. Their eggs are white and quite round. Clutch size, which depends on food availability, varies from 1 to 14. In years when food is scarce, some owls will not breed at all. Incubation begins when the first egg is laid, with the result that some eggs hatch several days sooner than others. If food is not abundant, only the older, larger chicks may survive.

Usually only the female incubates, but both parents bring food to the young. In the common barn owl incubation takes 32 to 34 days, in long-eared owls 27 to 28. At hatching the young are covered with white down and their eyes and ears are closed.

Twenty species of owls are found in North America. A few of the more widespread and distinctive species are discussed below.

1. Common Barn Owl

Found on all continents except Antarctica, the barn owl breeds in North America from Massachusetts, southern Ontario, Minnesota, and southern British Columbia south. It is about 18 inches (46 cm) long, golden brown above, and white below, with long feathered legs.

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Common barn owl feeds primarily on small mammals, especially rodents in open country. It nests in tree holes, bird boxes, duck blinds, caves, barns, belfries, and tunnels or burrows in the ground. Hissing and screaming notes are the barn owl's most common vocalizations. In winter this owl roosts, sometimes communally, in dense evergreens.

2. Screech Owl

The screech owls are divided into two species, the eastern and western screech owls (Otus asio and O. kennicottii), but the two are very similar. They range from New Brunswick to southeastern Alaska south to central Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and southern Florida.

Screech owls occur in two color phases -rich rufous and gray- that have no relation to age or sex. The birds have two tufts of feathers on the head. Total length is about 10 inches (25 cm).

The screech owl is common in woodlands near clearings, where its long whistled calls often may be heard after dark. Its diet includes beetles, moths, frogs, crayfish, snails, reptiles, and fish as well as bats and other small mammals. It nests and roosts in tree cavities.

3. Great Horned Owl

The most powerful of North American owls, this species is 18 to 25 inches (46–64 cm) long. Generally it is dark brown, but birds of the far north and of desert regions are considerably lighter in color. It ranges from the northern limit of trees to the Straits of Magellan in a wide variety of habitats, generally with trees.

Rabbits, rodents, and birds, including other owls, are its chief foods, though it takes many other kinds of animals as well. The most distinctive call is a series of low hoots. Great horned owls occupy the old nests of other large birds, such as hawks and crows.

4. Snowy Owl

A bird of the far north, the snowy owl is about 22 inches (56 cm) long and generally white with dark barrings that diminish with age. Some adult males are almost pure white. The snowy owl breeds in the Arctic tundra of both North America and Eurasia, where its usual prey is lemmings, ptarmigan, and hares.

In winters when lemmings are scarce, usually every four years, snowy owls move south in large numbers. Then they may be seen in North America as far south as the southern states. During this season they usually are found in marshes, dunes, and open farmland. Snowy owls make a nest on the ground and line it with moss and feathers.

5. Burrowing Owl

This dark brown, 9-inch (23-cm) owl is distinctive for its long legs and ground-dwelling habits. It lives in short-grass country in central and southern Florida and over much of the American West, as well as in most of Central and South America. It feeds mostly on insects but also takes small rodents, birds, frogs, snakes, and fish.

Burrowing owls generally live in loose colonies of 10 to 12 pairs. In the West they often inhabit empty burrows in prairie-dog towns, where they live in harmony with these animals. In Florida and wherever else animal burrows are not available, the owl digs its own burrow, usually 5 to 10 feet (1.5–3 meters) long, at a depth of 1 to 3 feet (0.3–1 meter) underground. The nest is lined with grass, roots, and bits of manure.

6. Barred Owl

Grayish brown and 20 inches (51 cm) long, this owl inhabits swamps and wet woods east of the Rockies and south through Mexico to Honduras. It usually is not found in the same habitat as the great horned owl.

The barred owl feeds on mice, other small mammals, frogs, crayfish, insects, fish, and birds. The typical series of eight hoots is more accented than that of the great horned owl. It lays its eggs in a tree hollow or the old nest of a squirrel or large bird.

7. Short-eared Owl

A practically cosmopolitan species, which is found in North and South America, Europe, and Asia, this owl lives in open grasslands and marshes, where it hunts for mice both day and night. Deep wing beats as the bird flies back and forth give it a peculiar bouncing flight.

This species is about 15 inches (38 cm) long, light buffy brown, and paler on the underparts, with ear tufts rarely visible. Nesting on the ground, it lines a depression with grasses in a site hidden by long grass or reeds.

8. Long-eared Owl

Dark brown and heavily streaked, this species is about 15 inches (38 cm) long. A generally quiet and strictly nocturnal owl, it inhabits thick woods and feeds almost exclusively on mice.

The long-eared owl is found in forested areas throughout the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere; in North America, from Newfoundland across Canada to central British Columbia and south to Virginia, Arkansas, and Baja California. In winter it is found south to Florida, the Gulf Coast, and Mexico. Its nest is that of another large bird or squirrel.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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