Associated with wisdom, owls are superbly adapted to detecting and dispatching their somewhat elusive prey.

Tawny owl
Barn owl in flight

Barn owl in flight


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Strigiformes


With around 200 individual species of owl spread throughout the world in a variety of environments and niches, owls are a common and popular bird of prey, however some species of owl are under pressure due to poaching.

Attenborough on Owls


Owls typically hunt small terrestrial animals with some also specialising in fish and insects. They swallow their prey whole, regurgitating pellets of indigestible material - such as bones, hair, scales and wing cases. This is helpful to researchers who are then able to accurately identify a specific owl's diet.


Mostly nocturnal, owls are typical for their large forward-facing eyes. Their forward facing binocular vision also enables owls to accurately judge distance.

Snowy owl listening out for prey under the snow

Snowy owl listening out for prey under the snow

Their incredibly large eyes allow for the maximum amount of light, and are so big that they are unable to rotate in the sockets. This means that owls must rotate their head in order to look around, with some owls being able to rotate their head through 270 degrees.

So that they don't cut off blood supply to their brain when rotating their heads, owls have fourteen vertebrae and adaptations in their neck arteries and veins, giving them a much greater flexibility.


Although at first glance it would seem that owls would rely heavily on vision, they are also incredibly well adapted to hear their prey in conditions where they might be obscured.

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Utilising adaptations which make them almost silent in flight, owls use their offset ears and large facial disks that surround each eye to accurately pin-point the rustle of their prey as the soundlessly swoop over their habitat.

Those owls from snowy environments are able to hear and subsequently catch their rodent prey whilst they scurry underneath sometimes very heavy snow.

Quick Facts

  • Owls have exceptional far vision, although they struggle to focus at very short distances.
  • Owls can rotate their heads at up to 270 degrees.
  • Serrations on an owl flight feathers reduce noise in flight.
  • The Elf owl is the world's smallest, weighting 31g and measuring 13.5cm.
  • The Eurasian eagle-owl and Blakiston's fish owl can have wingspans of 2m.