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12 Unique Characteristics of Owls (Pictures)

There are more than 200 owl species, and at least 19 species in the North America. Some owl species are less than 5 inches long, but others are more than 2 feet long. Even though these species vary, there are characteristics that nearly all owls share. As you read on, you’ll learn more about the characteristics of owls and why they have these features.

Characteristic Vs. Trait Vs. Adaptation

What are characteristics, and what makes them different from traits and adaptations? Characteristics are observable features that help to identify animals and other organisms. Traits are attributes that are influenced by an organism’s genes or environment, such as a bird’s size or the color of its feathers.

Adaptations are inheritable characteristics that help animals to survive in their habitats. An adaptation can be a physical feature or a behavioral trait. Over time, animals adapt and develop traits that help them find food and water, attract mates, and protect themselves from threats.

12 Characteristics of Owls

Owls are raptors, which is a type of bird that uses talons to capture live prey. Raptors are also known as predatory birds or birds of prey. Many birds are classified as raptors, including hawks, falcons, and eagles, but specific features help set them apart.

1. Big Eyes

Owl with glowing eyes
Owl with glowing eyes

Owls typically have very large eyes, especially when you compare the size of their eyes to the size of their heads. Some owl species, like Great Gray Owls, actually have larger eyes than humans do!

Many animals have spherical eyes, but an owl’s eyes tend to be more flat. This shape makes it difficult for owls to move their eyes.

2. Sharp Eyesight

All raptors have excellent eyesight, but owls have especially strong vision. An owl’s pupils and corneas are very large, which helps their eyes to gather light.

Owls are nocturnal birds with powerful night vision, but they can also see clearly during the day. While owls can see about eight times as far as humans can, experts believe that owls have limited color vision.

3. Large Wings

Barn owl approaching
Barn owl approaching

While owls can fly at speeds of more than 40 miles per hour, they’re also able to fly very slowly. They can do this thanks to the size of their wings, which are very large when compared to the size of their bodies.

Thanks to these oversized wings, owls can carry heavy prey back to their nests. These large wings also allow owls to glide through the air instead of flapping their wings as they fly.

4. Unusual Feathers

Owls have two kinds of feathers. Down feathers help to insulate them from cold weather, while contour feathers protect them from the elements and allow them to fly.

While it’s common for birds to have two types of feathers, the owl’s contour feathers are unique. These feathers are extremely dense and have soft, hair-like barbules. Owls have very thick feathers, which makes them look a lot bigger than they actually are.

5. Asymmetrical Ears

Great horned owl tree
Great horned owl tree

Most animals have symmetrical ears, but most owl species have one ear opening that’s higher than the other. Owls also have sensitive hearing that allows them to identify exactly where sounds are coming from.

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Experts believe that owls are better at localizing sounds than any other animal species. With their powerful eyesight and sharp hearing, it’s easy for owls to detect their prey.

6. Disc-Shaped Faces

Owls have broad faces with an unusual, elliptical shape. At times, people have described owls as having facial discs! While this is a distinctive characteristic, it also has a purpose.

This facial shape leaves owls with concave feathers around their faces. These feathers are able to collect sound waves and direct sounds towards the bird’s ears. Thanks to this, owls are highly responsive to noises!

7. Four Toes

Owl’s feet
Owl’s feet | image by Andrea Westmoreland via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0

When you look at an owl’s feet, you’ll spot four toes, but these birds don’t always point their feet in the same direction. Owls are considered to be zygodactyl, which means they have two toes that point forward and two toes that point backwards.

The joints in these toes are highly flexible, which allows owls to freely move each toe backwards and forwards. They can pivot their back toes forward to improve their grip or to help them move more quickly.

8. Sharp Talons

Like most birds of prey, owls have sharp and powerful talons that they use to capture their prey. An owl’s talons are very long when compared to the length of their toes, which helps them to grasp smaller animals.

Owls use their talons to ensnare and kill their prey. These talons are strong enough to carry heavy weights without breaking, and are sharp enough to pierce through the flesh and skulls of many animals. The length and crushing power of an owl’s talons can vary based on the species.

9. Flexible Necks

Barn owl
Barn owl perching

Although owls can’t move their eyes, their necks are far more flexible than a human’s. While humans have seven neck vertebrae, owls have 14 vertebrae in their necks!

In addition, an owl’s neck has just one socket pivot, which makes it easier for the bird to twist its neck back and forth. An owl can rotate its head by as much as 270 degrees! Their circulatory systems are designed to allow them to twist their heads without cutting off oxygen to their brains.

10. Hooked Beaks

Owls have short curved beaks that point downward. These beaks have a sharp hook at the tip, which owls can use to grip or tear apart their prey.

Since an owl’s beak faces downward, it doesn’t block its field of vision. It also keeps soundwaves from being deflected away from its face. Due to their dense feathers, owl beaks usually look much smaller than they actually are.

11. Three Eyelids

Owl hooting
Owl hooting | image by m.shattock via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

An owl has not one, not two, but three eyelids! One of these eyelids is used for sleeping, while another is used to blink and keep the eyes moist.

The third eyelid is called a nictitating membrane. It’s a thin, translucent eyelid that closes diagonally across the eye. Thanks to this eyelid, owls can protect their eyes from damage without blocking their vision.

12. Extra Blood Vessels

Owls have additional space for blood vessels in their neck bones. This keeps them from cutting off blood flow to their brains as they turn their heads. When an owl rotates its neck, these blood vessels expand, sending more blood their their eyes and their head.

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In addition to these blood vessels, owls have extra blood vessels in the soles of their feet! This allows owls to radiate body feet through the soles of their feet, which helps them to regulate their body temperature.

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