Glossary of Owl Terms

Close-up of barn owl flying against trees,Manchester Rd,United Kingdom,UK
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Owls are such special and intriguing birds that there are many different words used to describe them and their behavior. Birders who know those unique words will understand owls just a bit better and will be better prepared to identify and appreciate these outstanding raptors.

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    Owl flying while holding rodent

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    Describes a diet composed primarily of meat. As birds of prey, owls are carnivorous hunters and–depending on the species–will prey on insects, rodents, mammals, fish and other sources of meat. Their powerful talons, keen senses, and silent flight are ideal tools that help these birds efficiently capture prey, particularly when nestlings may need several meals a day and the parents must hunt frequently.

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    Owl at dusk

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    Active mostly during low-light periods such as dusk and dawn. Some species of owls–such as the short-eared owl–are crepuscular and are most active during twilight periods, though crepuscular owls can still be active either during the day or at night. Unusual low-light times such as eclipses or dark days with heavy cloud cover can also confuse these owls into being active at unexpected times.

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    Facial Disk

    funny portrait of an owl on a black background

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    A concave, flat, forward-facing facial structure ringed with distinctive feathers to help funnel sound to a bird's ears for more acute hearing. A facial disk is a key field mark for many owls, and birders who study the shape, size, colors, and markings of the facial disk use this feature as one easy way among many ways to identify owls.

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    Adult female short-eared owl mantling on its nest

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    Hunching over a recent kill by standing over it and spreading the wings slightly to try to hide it from other potential predators. Raptors such as owls spend a good deal of time hunting and do not always capture their prey, and they need to protect their meal when they have a successful hunt. These birds will mantle over the prey as they quickly eat so another bird or other predator does not steal what they have hunted.

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    Nemesis Bird

    Spotted owl hiding in tree

    Janmejaysinh Jadeja / Getty Images 

    A highly desired species that a birder hopes to add to their life list but often misses, even when other birders successfully see the bird. Local owls are often nemesis birds even for experienced birders because their crepuscular or nocturnal habits and strong camouflage make them difficult to spot even if they are visible.

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    Owl on branch at night with moon

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    Active mostly during the darkest parts of the night. Many owls are nocturnal and are equipped with large, sensitive eyes to make the most of what little light may be available. The keen hearing is another important sense for nocturnal owls, and their hearing can be so sensitive that they can hear the scuffling of prey from great distances, even when their prey is covered with leaves, snow, or other muffling material.

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    Two owlets sitting on branch

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    A baby owl that is not yet independent and still relies on its parents for food and care. Owlets are covered with fluffy down and lack the mature plumage, colors, and markings of adult birds. The name owlet also refers to several owl species of exceptionally small size.

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    Snowy owl with pellet

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    A dense, compact ball of indigestible material such as the fur, bones, and teeth of an owl's prey. Owls cannot pass that material through their digestive tracts and instead regurgitate pellets several hours after eating to clear out their crops and make room for the next meal. Ornithologists often dissect owl pellets to see what the birds have been eating and how their diets may be changing.

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  • 09 of 12


    Barn owl landing (possibly on prey)

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    A general name for a bird of prey such as an owl. Raptors are characterized by their strong hooked bills and sharp powerful talons, as well as their carnivorous diets. Owls are not the only raptors, but they are distinctive among the different types of raptors because of their shapes, facial disks, nocturnal habits, and other unique characteristics.

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    Great Horned Owl

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    The scientific family classification that includes all of the "true" or "typical" owls. This family includes the majority of the world's owl species, and they all share heavy camouflage and relatively round or oval facial disk shapes. These owls are found in a wide range of habitats around the world and include familiar species such as the great horned owl, screech owls, and eagle owls.

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    Snowy Owl in flight with wings out

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    A bird's toenail, a powerful weapon for hunting. All birds have talons, but owls' talons are longer and sharper than most other birds' talons because they are necessary for hunting and grasping prey. Owls often have short feathers on their legs and feet that may cover part of their talons, but they do not make the talons less sharp or less deadly.

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    Barn owl flying against black background

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    The scientific family classification that includes all barn owls. There are many different types of barn owls, but they all share some skeletal structures that are different than Strigidae owls, and their heart-shaped facial disks are a good field mark for all Tytonidae owls.