18 Owl Species With Irresistible Faces

A parliament of burrowing owls.
A parliament of burrowing owls.

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Owls are an unusual member of the bird kingdom. These creatures have huge eyes, round or heart-shaped faces, and an abundance of feathers. There are two types of owls: barn owls and true owls. Most of the world’s owls — 200 species — are true owls; while there are only 16 species of barn owls. Owls range from six inches to over two feet in height. These raptors are primarily nocturnal and they have many unique ways of securing their prey.

Here are 18 of the most captivating owl species.

1
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Long-Eared Owl

Long-eared owls in a tree

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Found in North America, Europe, and Asia, the long-eared owl (Asio otus) takes up residence in the abandoned nests of similarly sized birds such as hawks, ravens, or magpies. The diet of these medium-sized true owls consists primarily of small mammals they find in open land areas. 

After a courtship that involves aerial displays and calls by males, most long-eared owls form monogamous pairs. (Listen to the long-eared owl’s call via Cornell’s Macauley Library.)

2
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Barn Owl

Barn owl in an oak tree

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With characteristic heart-shaped faces, barn owls, which are found on every continent except Antartica, are the most widespread owl species. The barn owl (Tyto alba) hunts at night over open land. When they are nesting, the owls cache additional voles, rats, mice, and other mammals to feed their young.

Barn owls have superb hearing and downy feathers that conceal their approach allowing the owls to successfully capture their prey unnoticed.

3
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Speckled Owl

A spectacled owl in a rain forest

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A resident of southern Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America, the spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata) prefers living in dense, old-growth rainforests. This fast-moving, non-migratory true owl preys on small mammals that are active at night.

Named for their appearance which features white markings around their yellow eyes that look like spectacles, this owl is able to hide easily in tropical foliage.

4
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Oriental Bay Owl

Oriental Bay owl on a branch in the evening

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The Oriental bay owl (Phodilus badius) is a nocturnal owl that can be found throughout Southeast Asia. Its preferred habitat is in dense evergreen forests near bodies of water. A subspecies of barn owl, the Oriental bay owl is a bay owl. It is similar in appearance but smaller than typical barn owls.

It uses holes in trees and stumps to roost and nest; and hunts for prey perched on tree branches hidden from view.

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Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern screech owl in a tree

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The Eastern screech-owl (Otus asio) is a small owl that ranges from six to nine inches in height. Mostly active at night, eastern screech-owls prey on birds and small mammals as well as insects, frogs, lizards, and tadpoles. These true owls have excellent camouflage skills — depending on their unique coloration, they find the perfect matching tree cavity to roost.

Found throughout eastern North America from Canada to Mexico, this short and stocky species has a misleading name. It doesn't actually screech, but makes a descending tremolo call. (Listen to the eastern screech-owl’s call via Cornell’s Macauley Library.)

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Snowy Owl

Snowy owl perched on a pile of snow

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While found primarily in the Arctic tundra of North America, Europe, and Asia, these snowy-speckled birds will sometimes visit the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. A true owl, the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is one of the largest owl species and is the heaviest owl species in North America

When readily available, the snowy owl feeds primarily on lemmings and will hold off on breeding when lemmings are in short supply in the Arctic. Snowy owl nests are simple depressions in the snow shaped by the female’s body.

The snowy owl is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.

7
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Eurasian Eagle-Owl

Eurasian eagle owl in tall grass

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One of the largest owl species, the Eurasian eagle-owl (Bubo bubo) has a wingspan of five to six and a half feet. A powerful predator, Eurasian eagle-owls consume everything from small mammals to snakes and other reptiles, and even larger prey like foxes or similarly sized birds and owls.

Found throughout Europe and Asia, these true owls occupy a variety of habitats including forests, deserts, and mountains. Pairs mate for life nesting in rock crevices and cave entrances. Breeding increases when food sources are abundant and decreases in times of scarcity.

8
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Tawny Owl

Tawny owl in a tree

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The tawny owl (Strix aluco) is a true owl with a range that includes the Palearctic Region south to the Iberian Peninsula and east to China. It makes its home in habitats ranging from forests to gardens and cemeteries and is one of the most common owls in England.

Primarily nocturnal, tawny owls hunt for their favored prey — rodents, birds, insects, and amphibians — between dusk and dawn. These non-migratory birds are extremely territorial. They make themselves known with loud screeching calls and will attack to defend their nests and broods.

9
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Great Gray Owl

Great gray owl perched on a bare branch

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Inhabitats of Europe and Asia as well as the northwestern U.S., Canada, and Alaska, the great gray owl (Strix nebulosa) sticks to areas that are mostly free of human contact. At 24 to 33 inches in height, the great gray owl is one of the tallest owls though its fluffy feathers give it the appearance of an even larger bird.

This true owl is easily identified by its facial disk, which includes gray stripes encircling its two yellow eyes.

10
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Great Horned Owl

Great horned owl

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One of the most widespread and adaptable owls in the Americas, the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is able to thrive at elevations from sea level to over 10,000 feet.  Powerful predators, great horned owls are primarily night hunters with a diverse diet that includes mammals and snakes as well as other birds and owls. 

This true owl’s distinctive hoot is important — mated pairs defend their nesting area with loud and spirited hooting. (Listen to the great horned owl’s call via Cornell’s Macauley Library.)

11
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Northern Pygmy-Owl

Northern pygmy owl in a tree

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An active and aggressive day hunter, this small true owl sometimes attacks animals larger than itself. Native to western Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and Central America, these territorial owls are only about six inches tall.

The northern pygmy-owl (Glaucidium gnoma) has a feature shared with some other raptors: ocelli. This set of false eyes on the back of its head can deceive prey and prevent attack by mobbing birds.

12
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Burrowing Owl

Burrowing owl peeking out of its burrow

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Not all owls live in trees, as the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) can attest. This species takes up residence in old ground squirrel or prairie dog burrows. Hunting at night, it can fly or use its long legs to sprint and capture prey.

These petite true owls measure between seven and ten inches tall. They inhabit open fields and grasslands throughout Central and South America, and North America from southern Canada through Mexico. Those in the northern part of the range migrate for winter, while those in warmer, tropical climates are year-round residents.

13
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Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl on a tree branch

Kameron Perensovich / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The demure Northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) is seven to eight inches tall and is one of the smallest owls found in North America. These true owls earned their name because their call is reminiscent of a saw being sharpened on a whetstone. (Listen to the northern saw-whet owl’s call via Cornell’s Macauley Library.)

Due to their small size and nocturnal nature, these owls are heard but not frequently spotted. Northern saw-whet owls inhabit woodlands and feed on small mammals.

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Striped Owl

Striped owl in a tree

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The beautifully marked striped owl (Asio clamator) has distinctive ear tufts in addition to its black, white, and cinnamon-colored streaks.

This true owl can be found only in Central and South America. It has a huge range that includes marshlands, savannas, and woodlands. Comfortable at elevations ranging from sea level to 1,400 feet, these large owls roost in thick tropical foliage to avoid detection.

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Tawny Fish-Owl

A tawny fish owl sitting on a branch in a tree

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The tawny fish-owl (Ketupa flavipes) is found in Southeast Asia and China. These large owls are noted for their ear tufts which droop to the side, and their widespread yellow eyes.

As its common name suggests, this true owl species feeds on fish as well as other aquatic creatures. Inhabiting areas ranging from subtropical habitats to temperate forests, these birds are always close to rivers, lakes, and streams.

16
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Western Screech-Owl

Western screech owl in a tree

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A relative of the Eastern screech owl, this true owl species can be found along western portions of North America down into Central America. The Western screech-owl (Otus kennicottii) is most often found in open woods or at the edges of forests. The bird nests in cavities excavated and abandoned by woodpeckers.

These nocturnal hunters are well-camouflaged in their forest habitat thanks to their muted earth tone colors.

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Spotted Wood-Owl

spotted wood owl

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The large, orange-faced spotted wood owl can be found in several distinct areas throughout Southeast Asia. A true owl, the spotted wood-owl (Strix seloputo) lives in open forests or woodland habitats and can usually be found near water. It has striped coloration helps it hide in shaded canopies.

This earless bird feeds primarily on small rodents which it hunts from a perch.

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Boreal Owl

Boreal owl sitting on a branch

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Also known as the Tengmalm's owl in part of its range, the boreal owl (Aegolius funereus) is found in the northern U.S., Canada, Alaska, and Europe. 

This true owl is mostly brown with distinctive white spots across its crown. Boreal owls nest in cavities in the subalpine and boreal forests they inhabit. Small nocturnal hunters, boreal owls hunt small mammals, birds, and insects from perches.