Owl: Key Facts

Did you know that the name “owl” refers to well over 200 distinct species that belong to two separate scientific families? How about that owls can live up to 25 years? Keep reading to learn more about these and many other owl key facts.

Quick Facts About Owls

Scientific Families– Strigidae (True owls)
– Tytonidae (Barn owls)
Number of Species250
Physical DescriptionMedium to large birds of prey, most of which have large, beady eyes and thick necks that allow their heads to turn nearly all the way around. All have relatively small beaks and powerful talons. Colors and patterns vary from species to species, but common colors include brown, gray, and white.
DistributionWidely distributed throughout every continent except Antarctica
HabitatVaries widely depending on species and region. May live in woodlands, grasslands, deserts, tundra regions, and mountains. They may live in holes in trees, cacti, burrows in the ground, abandoned barns, nesting boxes, and abandoned bird nests.
DietOpportunistic carnivore; common food sources include:
– Mice, rats, and other small rodents
– Reptiles and amphibians
– Fish
– Insects
– Small mammals such as rabbits and squirrels
– Other birds
SizeDepends on species; averages are:
– Height: 5 to 33 inches
– Weight: 1 ounce to 4 pounds
– Wingspan: 10.5 inches to 5 feet
LifespanUp to 25 years
Largest SpeciesGreat gray owl
Smallest SpeciesElf owl

What Are Owls?

Owls are birds of prey found throughout the world. There are many different species of owl, all of which are divided into two scientific families: Strigidae, the “true” owls, and Tytonidae, the barn owls.

Owls come in a wide range of sizes, live in a variety of habitats, and hunt many different animals and insects. They do not build nests, but they may live in abandoned nests built by other birds, holes burrowed into the ground, and hollowed out parts of trees and cacti.

Owls are known for the distinctive “hoot-hoot” calls they make. Every owl species has a slightly different hoot, and even owls within a single species can produce a variety of different sounds that have different meanings.

Another distinctive characteristic of owls is their large eyes. They do not have eyelids, and they can’t move their eyes because they are set firmly into their eye sockets; so whenever an owl wants to look around, it must move its entire head.  

They are not very aggressive; however, in some situations they may attack humans.

How Far Can an Owl Turn Its Head?

According to the International Owl Center, an owl’s neck has a full range of motion of 540 degrees. This means that it can turn its head a maximum of 270 degrees in one direction, then go back and move it up to 270 degrees in the other direction.

What does this look like practically?

When facing forward, an owl can turn its head over one shoulder, across its spine, and all the way to the other shoulder. This movement represents about 270 degrees.

So it can turn its head from facing forward, across, say, the right shoulder, and all the way to the left shoulder, then return to the starting position, rotate its head across the left shoulder, and turn it all the way around to the right shoulder. This represents about 570 degrees.

Because of this great range of motion, many people believe an owl can turn its head all the way around. And this is true, when the owl’s head is facing backward, over its spine.

But when facing forward, the maximum distance an owl can turn its head is 270 degrees.

Check out this video of an owl turning its head 570 degrees. You will probably agree that it looks like the owl is turning its head all the way around.


Owls are medium to large birds of prey that live in many regions and environments throughout the world. They are known for the eerie hooting noises they make, their big, stationary eyes, and their ability to turn their head nearly all the way around.

Read also about other forest birds – here are our guides about woodpecker, wren, cuckoo.

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