Owls are birds of prey known as raptors. Like all raptors, owls have sharp beaks and strong claws — called talons — that they use to catch and eat other animals for food. Other raptors include hawks, eagles and falcons.
Owls don't necessarily compete with other raptors for food. In fact, they can often share territories, because unlike most raptors, owls are mostly nocturnal. That means owls do most of their hunting at night when other raptors are sleeping.
Scientists believe there are over 200 different kinds of owls around the world. Almost 20 species of owls can be found in North America alone. Today, owls can be found on every continent except Antarctica.
Owls can range in size from the very small elf owl (five inches tall) to the two-foot-tall great gray owl. Regardless of size, all owls tend to be stocky with large heads and soft feathers. Their feathers are often light colors, such as tan, brown, gray and white, which allow them to blend in easily with tree trunks and branches.
When you see an owl, one of the first things you notice is its large eyes. Owl eyes are so large, in fact, that they can't even move in their sockets like your eyes can. Owls have to move their heads around instead.
Owls' large eyes enable them to see better at night when they tend to hunt. Most owls can see about three times better at night than you can!
Believe it or not, though, most owls don't hunt mainly by sight. Instead, they hunt mostly by sound. The feathers around an owl's face collect sound much like a satellite dish collects signals from space.
Owls also have one ear that is slightly higher on its head than the other ear. This means that sounds reach owls' ears at slightly different times, allowing their brains to judge more accurately where the sound came from.
So are owls really wise? Scientists know for sure that they're good predators. As for actual wisdom, who knows? Historians do know that owls have appeared in the art and writings of various cultures since ancient times.
The ancient Greek and Roman goddesses of wisdom, for example, were often pictured with owls. This may have led to their being used in many other types of popular culture as a symbol of wisdom. Many children's books, from Winnie-the-Pooh to the Harry Potter series, feature owls as wise and noble creatures.