How to identify owls

09 January 2022 | Posted in Birds
How to identify owls
Barn Owl © Andy Rouse/2020VISION

Owls are some of our most captivating birds. Their love of hunting at dawn, dusk and even in the dark gives them a sense of mystery. 

With a good view, it’s easy to tell an owl from any other bird of prey thanks to their large head with big, forward-facing eyes. But how do you tell one owl from another? Here’s our guide to the five species you’re likely to spot in the Sussex.

Barn Owl

A very pale, slender owl, typically white on the underparts and golden-brown with grey markings on the upperparts. It has a white, heart-shaped facial disk with dark eyes. This, and its pale plumage, separate it from any other resident owl. Usually seen over grassland or farmland.

In flight, often gives the impression of a large white bird. Most often seen at dawn and dusk, though can be seen at night or even hunting during the day. Flies back and forth over fields.

The Barn Owl calls with eerie squeals and a shrieking 'shreeee'. Take a listen...

Tawny Owl

A mostly brown, fairly compact owl with a large, rounded head. A little larger than a Barn Owl and usually seen in woodland. The plumage is mottled brown but can vary from greyish to reddish brown. The facial disk is mostly plain, with a narrow, darker wedge extending down between the large black eyes.

In flight, shows broad, rounded wings. It has a very direct flight with quick wingbeats and long, straight glides, often only flying short distances from tree to tree. Likes to hunt from perches, swooping down to prey on the ground. Largely nocturnal and rarely seen flying during the day.

The Tawny Owl has a rich repertoire of calls. Listen out for the short 'ke-wik' contact call and the quavering 'hoo, hu-hooo' advertising call.

Short-eared Owl

A sandy-brown owl similar in size to a tawny owl, but with longer wings. The upperparts are mostly yellowish-brown with darker streaks, whilst the underparts are a paler yellow with dark streaks on the breast. The facial disk is a pale whitish or yellowish-brown, with a well-defined border. There are dark patches surrounding the piercing yellow eyes, as if the owl were wearing a lot of black eyeshadow! The Short-eared Owl has short ‘ear-tufts’ on top of the head, though they are usually barely visible.

In flight, shows long, narrow wings. Compared to the similar long-eared owl, the wings are slightly longer and more slender, with solid black wingtips – as if they have been dipped in ink. It has a streaked breast, but a pale, un-marked belly, and thick dark barring on the tail. It also shows a white trailing edge to the upper wing. Flies with slow wingbeats and wavering glides. Often hunts during the day, as well as at night. Breeds mainly on moorland, but found more widely in winter when migrants arrive from the continent.

The Short-eared Owl is rarely heard away from its breeding grounds, where males sometimes perform display flights, giving a fast series of deep hoots as well as short, quick wing-claps. Other calls are rasping barks, which are given in a quick series when birds are alarmed, like this one...

Long-eared Owl

A streaky brown owl that looks very similar to a Short-eared Owl. It has generally darker feathers, with less of a yellow hue than short-eared owl. The facial disk is buff with a well-defined blackish border, with white ‘eyebrows’ extending down towards the beak. The eyes are deep orange and only have a little bit of black feathering around the inner edge – it doesn’t surround the eye, as in short-eared owl. There are long, obvious ‘ear-tufts’ on the top of the head, though these can be lowered and less conspicuous.

In flight, can be tricky to separate from Short-eared Owl. Slightly shorter and more blunt-tipped wings, with fine black barring on the wingtips (compared with the solid black wingtips of Short-eared Owl). The dark streaking on the breast extends down over the belly, giving a darker appearance to the underside. The dark barring on the tail is finer than in Short-eared Owl, and there is no white trailing edge to the upper wing.

Long-eared Owl is typically a nocturnal hunter but can sometimes be seen hunting during the day, so seeing an ‘eared’ owl hunting in daylight hours doesn’t automatically make it a Short-eared Owl. In winter, resident birds are joined by migrants from further east. Forms communal roosts, which can be very sensitive to disturbance so should be viewed from a distance.

The male Long-eared Owl advertises with deep, soft hoots with no inflection, given in a regular series with a hoot every few seconds. Sometimes gives weak wing-claps as it flies over its territory. The female has a more nasal call. The begging call of chicks can be heard from a great distance: high pitched squeaks like the hinges of a rusty gate...

Little Owl

A small, compact owl with a rather flattened crown. The upperparts are dark brown with whitish streaks and spots, which are large on the back but fine on the head. There are larger whitish markings that give the impression of a false face on the back of the head. The underparts are whitish with bold brown streaks. The facial disk is greyish brown with prominent whitish ‘eyebrows’ that give it a stern expression. The eyes are yellow.

Flies with a fast, bounding flight similar to a thrush, though will take a more direct, flapping flight over short distances. Hunts by swooping down from a perch, but will also run across the ground in pursuit of prey. Most active at dawn and dusk, but can often be seen during the day.

The Little Owl has a variety of calls, including a fast 'chi-chi-chi' alarm call, a low-pitched hoot, and this mewling call...

How to identify owls video

Comments

  • Christine Field:

    13 Jan 2022 12:58:00

    Absolutely lovely thank you.

  • Rob Burt:

    13 Jan 2022 13:10:00

    What a Hoot!

  • Jenny Deadman:

    13 Jan 2022 13:46:00

    Loved the owl I.D., film and the choice of music was uplifting

  • Margaret Devitt:

    13 Jan 2022 14:06:00

    This excellent article enthused me enormously. Are there any owl watching groups planned in local woods this spring? I’d happily sit somewhere well wrapped up to listen & hopefully see one’

  • Tracy:

    13 Jan 2022 14:11:00

    Love this, thank you 🦉💚

  • Jean Woolridge:

    13 Jan 2022 14:12:00

    Delightful

  • Gregory Mumford:

    13 Jan 2022 15:50:00

    Really useful, still yet to spot the Tawny who we often hear close to our house.

  • Stephanie King:

    13 Jan 2022 15:55:00

    Great help, thank you.

  • Neil Clarke:

    13 Jan 2022 15:57:00

    What a fantastic article – there is just so much to learn ! Thank you

  • Claire Hilton:

    13 Jan 2022 16:01:00

    Love this – really helpful and great video

  • Lynn Staff:

    13 Jan 2022 16:07:00

    Wonderful. Thank you for this

  • Fiona Sommerville:

    13 Jan 2022 16:43:00

    This was so uplifting, thank you

  • P Martucci:

    13 Jan 2022 17:33:00

    Very enlightening thank you

  • Shuna Le Moine:

    13 Jan 2022 17:55:00

    Wonderful, wonderful 👏🏼
    Thank you so much.
    Now I just need to see one!

    Happy New Year to you all🥂

  • MR MARK DUNN:

    13 Jan 2022 19:44:00

    Very Helpful.

  • Marion Cox:

    13 Jan 2022 23:45:00

    Thank you

  • Andrew Morison:

    14 Jan 2022 03:50:00

    Very informative! I am lucky often falling asleep to the sound of Tawny Owls calling to each other. Several years ago when taking our dogs for their ‘good night’ piddle I heard a Tawny Owl hoot above me. On searching the tall Sweet Chestnut, near which I was standing, with my torch I saw a Tawny Owl standing on a branch well up the tree huddled up against the trunk. It was the thrill of a lifetime almost matching that of having a Barn Owl fly so low over me at dusk while standing by a pond that I could have stretched up my arm and touched it. I count myself a very lucky man.

  • Dawson Jacqueline:

    14 Jan 2022 07:25:00

    My favourite is the Long eared Owl! So regal!
    Very informative, Thank you.

  • Willow:

    14 Jan 2022 09:17:00

    Enjoyed that immensely thanks-I learnt a lot about appearance and sounds of different owls.

  • Jill Bavin:

    14 Jan 2022 09:54:00

    Really helpful and lovely to watch. The music was a great choice, too. Thank you.

  • Willow:

    14 Jan 2022 15:51:00

    Enjoyed that immensely thanks-I learnt a lot about appearance and sounds of different owls.

  • Andrew Morison:

    14 Jan 2022 17:09:00

    Very informative! I am lucky often falling asleep to the sound of Tawny Owls calling to each other. Several years ago when taking our dogs for their ‘good night’ piddle I heard a Tawny Owl hoot above me. On searching the tall Sweet Chestnut, near which I was standing, with my torch I saw a Tawny Owl standing on a branch well up the tree huddled up against the trunk. It was the thrill of a lifetime almost matching that of having a Barn Owl fly so low over me at dusk while standing by a pond that I could have stretched up my arm and touched it. I count myself a very lucky man.

  • AJAZ SHEIKH:

    14 Jan 2022 23:35:00

    Absolutely brilliant. Thanks for giving differentiating tips, that makes identification easy.My favourite is Barn Owl.

  • Mandy thorne:

    15 Jan 2022 16:05:00

    Such a lovely video, really informative and beautiful photography. Thank you.

  • Louise Tucker:

    15 Jan 2022 23:21:00

    This video confirms that we did indeed see a barn owl flying across the field behind our house at dusk – magical and ghostly!
    But the hollow whoo whoo sound we hear at night doesn’t quite match any of the sound clips – could you suggest which one it might be?

    Answer: Likely to be a Tawny Owl
  • P Martucci:

    17 Jan 2022 17:27:00

    Very enlightening thank you

  • Marion Cox:

    17 Jan 2022 21:11:00

    Thank you

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