from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Barred Owl (Strix varia)

Barred ( Strix varia )

Trunk : Chordates (chordata)
Sub-stem : Vertebrates (vertebrata)
Row : Land vertebrates (Tetrapoda)
Class : Birds (aves)
Order : Owls
Scientific name
Wagler , 1830

The owls (Strigiformes) are an order of birds to which about 200 species are counted. Representatives of the group can be found on all continents except Antarctica. Most species are nocturnal and have developed numerous adaptations to their nocturnal activity. Within the owls a distinction is made between the two families of the barn owls ( Tytonidae) and the real owls (Strigidae).


The German language knows the terms "Eule" and "Kauz". This distinction is not made in any other European language. In English all types of owls are referred to as owl and in Dutch as uil . The French language knows the term hibou in addition to chouette , but the latter term is used exclusively for owls with feather ears such as the long-eared owl .

The two German terms developed onomatopoeically from the calls of the owls. “Owl” refers to the howling calls, while “Kauz” is a paraphrase for the short and distinctive calls. The term owl is mainly used in German for species that appear slim in their appearance. Kauz - also used in German for the genus Strix - usually refers to species that appear rather squat and round.

Anatomical features

Owls have a very typical shape. As birds specializing in nocturnal hunting, owls differ from other birds in specific anatomical features. The body is stocky and the head, compared to that of other birds, is noticeably large and rounded. The beak of the owl is strongly curved and sharp-edged.

Long-eared owl closes its eyelid
Claws of the long-eared owl

Owls have large, forward-facing eyes with a relatively shortened retina and convex lens that are surrounded by a long tube of scleral bones called the scleral ring . These eyes enable them to see objects and their prey in three dimensions and to estimate speeds and distances ( binocular vision ). The eyes themselves are immobile, instead the animals can turn their head up to 270 °, which greatly expands the field of vision. This is made possible for the owls by their 14 cervical vertebrae (for comparison: humans and mammals only have seven cervical vertebrae). The eyes are protected by an upper and a lower eyelid as well as a nictitating membrane that can cover the eye.

Skull of an eagle owl

While other species of birds usually have small round ear openings, owls are characterized by slit-shaped ear openings that are almost as long as head height. These ear openings are not arranged symmetrically on the head, the right ear opening is slightly higher. This asymmetry is differently pronounced depending on the owl species, but it is present in all of them. Many owls also have a visually striking face veil that directs sound towards their ears. Together with the feather ears , the face veil also serves to express moods in enemy and social contact and is therefore often conspicuously colored. Movable ear lobes in front of and behind the ear opening are equipped with short, hard springs and help locate the noise. The skull, which is wider than other bird species, is also helpful in locating the noise. A side noise is perceived by one ear a fraction of a second earlier. The part of the brain where the auditory center is located is very well developed. When the barn owl z. B. 95,000 nerve cells were found, whereas in the crow there are only 27,000. However, the owls are less sensitive to low frequency sounds, whereas the sensitivity to high frequencies is very well developed.

Feather of an owl up close: at the bottom right you can see the edge of the feather with comb-shaped appendages. These swirl the air in such a way that no loud air noises arise. The fur-like fluff that can be seen on the surface of the feather has a similar function.

In relation to their body weight, owls have a large wing area. This enables owls to fly quietly. This is also supported by the fact that the flight feathers of most types have a soft and comb-shaped edge. The exception to this are the fish owls and fish owls , which specialize in fish as food animals. The foot of the owl has four toes, which are about the same length in the barn owls . In the real owls , the inner toe pointing back is slightly shortened. The outermost toe is designed as a reversible toe and can be turned both forwards and backwards. The normal position of adult owls is zygodactyl , i.e. with two toes pointing forwards and two backwards.

Owl species are distributed worldwide with the exception of Antarctica and individual islands. They colonize almost all types of habitats, from dry and humid primeval forests to savannahs , marshlands and forests to tundra. Most of the species live in the tropical and subtropical habitats of South America and Asia. The northernmost distribution area shows the snowy owl , which can be found in the tundra of northern Siberia , northern Canada and even on the coasts of Greenland .

Way of life

Resting behavior and flight

Most owls are nocturnal. They hunt at night and sleep during the day. Exceptions include the diurnal snowy owl , the hawk , the short-eared owl and the often active day pygmy owl .

Ways of hunting

Owls specialize primarily in nocturnal prey. The hunting technique practiced by the owls is species-specific, shaped by the respective local conditions and also dependent on the prey. In general, the species that live in the forest tend to practice high-seat hunting , in which they lurk for prey from a viewing point . Owls that inhabit more open landscapes hunt on game flights, during which they spot or hear their prey while in flight. The latter applies, for example, to the barn owl. However, they resort to high-seat hunting when bad weather limits these stalking flights.

Many species of owls are also skilled ground hunters, able to catch up with a mouse that flies away on the ground. The most typical prey acquisition act, however, is the concentrated fixation of the prey from a control point or from the flight, a slowing down of the flight immediately before the encounter with the prey, with the legs stretched forward and the toes spread widely, and a quick killing bite while at the same time the prey with the powerful catches is "walked" and the wings are spread wide over the prey in the so-called "catch position".

Prey scheme

For most species of owls, small mammals such as mice are the preferred prey. The prey spectrum also includes other birds, fish , snakes , earthworms , snails , bats , frogs , moths and large beetles . Many species of owls also eat carrion , which in particular made the eagle owl appear again and again as a pest when examining its vault , as even deer and deer components can be detected.

Large owls also hunt other smaller species of owls. This is especially true for the eagle owl, in which the tawny owl and long-eared owl make up a not inconsiderable part of the prey.

Hate reaction of other bird species to owls

Most owl species have distinctive features that clearly characterize them as owls. This includes the large, spherical head with the eyes pointing forward, the squat figure and the plump plumage. Other bird species recognize their predator and react with aggressive behavior if they discover owls in their hiding place during the day. This so-called " hating " of birds for owls is occasionally used by humans to this day. Owls were raised up in front of the hunter's hiding place and the birds so attracted were shot down or captured with nets. For example, the little owl was used to catch thrushes and the eagle owl to hunt crows and birds of prey. Today this so-called hut hunting with live decoys is forbidden.

Owl protection

Almost all owl species are considered endangered in Germany. The habitat destruction of the old, natural forests is primarily responsible for the decline in their populations . The intensification of agriculture means that fewer small mammals are available as a source of food.

In a study of eagle owls, dead finds were evaluated and it was determined that direct death on overhead lines is the number one cause of loss in Germany. The birds get a fatal blow if they touch the electrical conductor and an earthed carrier at the same time or two lines with different voltages.

That is why a program for the reintroduction of the eagle owl was initiated in Schleswig-Holstein in 1983. This should create a stable breeding population of this owl species, which was exterminated in Schleswig-Holstein in the last century. The state association for owl protection in Schleswig-Holstein e. V. set up reintroduction aviaries at selected locations in the country and stocked them with a breeding pair. The Junguhus bred there were used to living outdoors after they fledged. In the period from 1980 to 2002, a total of more than 600 owls were released in 28 areas. In 2006 over 100 broods with more than 150 fledglings were registered.

The breeding grounds of the barn owl, the little owl and the barn owl are partially secured by nature conservation associations and appropriate monitoring programs are carried out. The tawny owl , long-eared owl and short-eared owl are mainly dependent on biotope protection measures.

Evolution and systematics

Tribal history

Due to the very poor conservation properties of bird bones, which are fragile structures and are much more sensitive than the bones of other vertebrates, only very sparse fossil finds are known from most bird groups. In addition, there is the difficulty of identification, since there is still no clear classification of the bone features in birds.

It is believed that the earliest owls appeared at the end of the Cretaceous over 65 million years ago, but no such find is known to date. The earliest recorded owls are from the Paleocene and Eocene , a period between 65 and 40 million years ago. The oldest known species is Ogygopteryx wetmorei from the Paleocene, which is the only member of the Ogygoptygidae family and was found in Colorado , USA . The seven owl skeletons known to date from the Eocene also come from the USA ( Wyoming and California ) , with one exception from England . All of these species are not assigned to the two families that exist today, but form the Protostrigidae family with another species from the early Oligocene .

The first skeletal finds of the real owls (Strigidae) come from the lower Oligocene and were mainly found in a fossil horizon in Quercy in France . These are assigned to the extinct genera Necrobyas and Strygogyps , but with Bubo incertus a representative of the eagle owls and with Asio henrici a species of eared owl have been identified. The later finds from the Miocene all belong to the still existing genres such as the scops owl and the codgers . The earliest barn owls can also be found in the Miocene, especially in France and Italy . These are mainly representatives of the genus Tyto , which still exists today , but also one of an extinct genus with Prosbybris antiqua . The mask owls were also present with a species in the Miocene in France.

In the following epochs the finds of the fossil owls increase and most of them are representatives of genera that still exist today. Owls from tropical regions only appear as finds in the last two million years ( Pleistocene and Holocene ), as the decomposition and decomposition of bones is accelerated in these areas by the strong moisture and the chances of conservation are correspondingly low. Fossil finds of today's species are also relatively common and also date from the last two million years.


Within the owls, the two families of the barn owls ( Tytonidae) and the real owls (Strigidae) are distinguished.

See also owls in the Tree of Life web project, for classification in the birds see systematics of birds .

Man and owl

Superstition about the owl

Face of the long-eared owl with the eye-catching face veil
Owl at Snow White's coffin , German postage stamp, designed by Holger Börnsen , 1962
The owl as the godfather symbol of the nature reserves
front and back

The owls with their conspicuously large eyes, the cheek-like facial surfaces, the beak reminiscent of a strongly curved nose and the upright posture differ so clearly from other bird species that there are many different and sometimes contradicting superstitions surrounding this bird family.

The superstition seldom differentiates between the individual owl species. For superstition, it is usually not important whether the owl feather used is that of a scops owl or that of an eagle owl. As the closest species to humans, however, the barn owl will have been involved in superstitious rituals.

Witch and devil bird

While the owl is still positively interpreted as a symbol for Christ in the Greek Physiologus in Chapter 5 with reference to Psalm 102,7  LUT , in the medieval bestiaries owls are symbolized by Jews and sinners who persist in darkness.

It is characterized in more detail in Grimm's Children's and Household Tales No. 174 The Owl (also KHM 69 , 169 , 171 , 196 ).

In the Harry Potter book series by the author Joanne K. Rowling , which is popular today , owls serve witches and wizards as carriers of messages and packages. This is connected to an old, Europe-wide widespread superstition, according to which the owl is a " witch bird " that appears at witch meetings, the witches perform messenger services and with whose feathers the witches adorn themselves. Owls accompany the wild host , and the devil's grandmother is transformed into an owl. The owl is thus a demonic bird in superstition . In Italy it was even believed that their gaze killed.

In African traditions, owls are often killed in connection with practices such as juju , but also vice versa to protect themselves from witchcraft. In a survey of 661 people, 58 percent linked owls with bad omen, witchcraft and death, and 19 percent found owls scary. In India and Southeast Asia, many owls are killed on the Diwali festival to avert misfortune and gain magical powers.

Owls as messengers of bad luck

Even in ancient Greece, the owl's call was considered a bad omen. In the Tanach it appears as an image of destruction that has taken place ( Ps 102.7  EU , Isa 13.21  EU , Zef 2.14  EU ).

The owl is rarely seen during the day. If that happens anyway and their call can even be heard during the day, then there will be epidemics or a conflagration. In the Jizera Mountains , their appearance in broad daylight only indicates rain.

It also meant unhappiness when the bride and groom met an owl on the way to church. Another popular superstition was that the owl's call heralded death.

The superstition in the owl as a messenger of death can also be found in Shakespeare . In his drama Julius Caesar , owls screaming heralds the murder.

And yesterday the bird sat
Even at noon in the market at night
And screeched and screamed.

And Lady Macbeth hears the owl in the drama Macbeth while her husband murders the rightful king :

- Quiet, listen! -
It was the owl that screamed, the sad watchman,
Who wishes a terrible good night.

Owls as a lucky charm

Superstitions often vary from region to region; there are some regions where the owl screeching announces the birth of a child rather than death. This is the case, for example, in the Bern region, Switzerland. And in Lusatia , the call of an owl near a house where a pregnant woman lives is, according to regional superstition, an indication that a complication-free birth is to be expected.

It should also bring luck when an owl takes refuge in the dovecote .

The wise owl

The owl is also considered a bird of wisdom in the western world ; as such, the little owl is the companion animal of the goddess Athena . The fixed, calm gaze of her eyes certainly contributed to this reputation. In ancient Athens there were once many owl pictures and statues in honor of Athena, and there was an owl on the silver tetradrachms , so that the saying " carry owls to Athens " was synonymous with a superfluous act. The image of an owl is on the back of the Greek 1 euro coins. The Renaissance rediscovered the ancient association with the goddess Pallas Athene. Minerva's owl - Minerva is the Roman goddess who corresponds to Athena - has become a popular expression.

In many children's books , such as Pooh the Pooh , and in cartoons , the owl appears with glasses and often with a book under the wing, which is supposed to symbolize its special wisdom.

In India , on the other hand, the owl has been considered stupid since ancient times and in this capacity it appears in the Panchatantra (approx. 300 AD). "Owl" ( Hindi ullū ) is also a swear word in the sense of "idiot".

The eagle owl is "as a symbol of wisdom" and the heraldic bird of the Schlaraffia men's association .

The Deutsches Museum in Munich, the largest natural science and technology museum in the world, has an owl sitting on a half gear wheel as a symbol of science and technology.

supporting documents


Individual evidence

  1. a b Viktor Wember: The names of the birds in Europe - meaning of the German and scientific names. Aula-Verlag, Wiebelsheim 2007, ISBN 978-3-89104-709-5 , p. 141.
  2. Endangering birds on overhead power lines on Naturschutzrecht.net
  3. Species aid program owls on the website of the state government of Schleswig-Holstein
  4. Strigiformes OWLS ( English ) Tree of Life Project. Retrieved April 1, 2019.
  5. Genoveva Nitz: Owls . In: Christian animal symbolism . Klerusblatt-Verlag, Munich 2010, p. 100 f.
  6. Heimo Mikkola: Handbuch Eulen der Welt , p. 62
  7. Heimo Mikkola: Handbuch Eulen der Welt , p. 292
  8. Walter Thiede: Birds of prey and owls - recognize and determine all species of Central Europe. BLV Buchverlag, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-8354-0448-9 , p. 6.

Web links

Commons : Owls (Strigiformes)  - Collection of images, videos and audio files