»Owl Fun Facts

Are All Owls Actually Night Owls?

By Laura Geggel | September 19, 2016 04:15pm ET

Owls are so famous for their nighttime escapades that the phrase "night owl" developed to describe people who stay up late. But the saying is actually a bit misleading because some owls are active daytime hunters, experts told Live Science.

During the daytime, while some owls are sleeping, the northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula) and the northern pygmy owl (Glaucidium gnoma) are hunting for meals, making them diurnal — that is, active during the daytime, said Marc Devokaitis, a public information specialist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.

Moreover, it's not uncommon to spot a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) or burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) during the day, depending on the season and food availability, Devokaitis told Live Science.

Some owls are strictly nighttime owls, including the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) and barn owl (Tyto alba). And others hunt during both the day and night, as well as the crepuscular times of dawn and dusk, when many prey are active, the experts said.

"Owls don't quite as clearly fall into nocturnal and diurnal as some other animals because a lot of them are active during the daytime and nighttime," said Julie Ponder, a veterinarian and the executive director of The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.

The reason behind these varying sleep schedules largely has to do with prey availability, the experts said. For instance, the northern pygmy owl has a proclivity for songbirds, which are also awake during the day, the experts said. The northern hawk owl, which hunts during the day, as well as at dawn and dusk, eats small birds and voles and other diurnal animals.

As the northern hawk owl's name implies, it looks quite hawkish. That's because owls and hawks are closely related, Devokaitis said. However, it's unclear whether the common ancestor they shared was diurnal, like the hawk, or nocturnal, like most owls, he said.

"Owls seem like a night-adapted bird that has then made forays into the daytime at various points in evolutionary history," he said.

However, nocturnal owls certainly have advantages for their nighttime activities. Owls have excellent vision and hearing, both of which help them excel at nighttime hunting. In addition, the cover of darkness helps nocturnal owls avoid predators, as well as to attack prey, principally because their feathers hardly make any noise when they fly, Devokaitis said.

In addition, many rodents and other owl prey are active at night, giving the nocturnal owl species a smorgasbord of menu options, Devokaitis said.

Whether owls are nocturnal or diurnal, Ponder credited their success to the birds' flexibility and adaptability.

"Some are evolved to hunt specific prey at a specific time, day or night," she said. "Others are more general and more able to adapt to what's needed."

Geggel, Laura. "Are All Owls Actually Night Owls?" LiveScience. Purch, 19 Sept. 2016. Web. 26 Feb. 2017.


• There are 216 different owl species--18 belong to the Barn Owl family (Tytonidae) and 198 belong to the typical owl family (Strigidae).
• The smallest owl—weighing as little as 31 grams (1 oz) and measuring some 13.5 centimeters (5 in)—is the elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi).
• Owls are often active at night (nocturnal).
• Just two owl species are truly diurnal (active during the day): the northern hawk owl and the northern pygmy owl.
• A group of owls is called a parliament.
• Most owls hunt insects, small mammals, and other birds.
• Some owl species hunt fish.
• Owls have powerful talons (claws) which help them catch and kill prey.
• Owls have large eyes and a flat face.
• Owls can turn their heads as much as 270 degrees.
• Owls are farsighted, meaning they can’t see things close to their eyes clearly.
• Owls are very quiet in flight compared to other birds of prey.
• The color of an owl’s feathers helps it blend into its environment (camouflage).
• Owls do not build their own nests. Some species use old hawk, crow or raven nests. A few others use a scrape on the ground, and a number of small owls nest in tree cavities or nesting boxes.
• Barn owls can be recognized by their heart-shaped face.
• In mythology, owls are related to wisdom and femininity.

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