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Owl Vocabulary

Glossary of Owl Terms


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.

Click on any term for a more detailed definition and photos.


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.


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.

Facial Disk

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 can more easily identify owls.


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.

Nemesis Bird

A highly desired species a birder hopes to add to their life list but that they often miss, 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.


Active mostly during the darkest parts of night. Many owls are nocturnal and are equipped with large, sensitive eyes to make the most of what little light may be available. 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.


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.


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 in order 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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