Every continent except Antarctica


Virtually all terrestrial habitats, from the Arctic to the tropics

Captivating owls

What makes owls so mysterious to us? They have had a powerful hold on the human imagination across centuries and cultures, appearing as warnings of doom and as symbols of wisdom. Of course, we know that most are nocturnal, and their nighttime habits may make them seem scary or spooky to us. We think of them flying silently over churchyards, and their eyes seem to glow in the dark. But there’s nothing supernatural about the acute hearing and sight of owls. Far from fearing them, we should appreciate owls as competent predators that hunt mice and other rodents, helping to maintain a balance in nature.

Name that owl

While most of us have no problem identifying an owl—just look for that round face, sharp, hooked bill, and large eyes—it’s not as easy to distinguish between different kinds of owls. Even scientists have trouble placing some species in the two family groups: barn owls and typical owls. You have to look carefully at their facial disc (for example, all barn owls have a heart-shaped facial disc, whereas typical owls have a round one), their feet, and whether or not they have ear tufts. Look for owls near your home, and see if you can identify local species.

Even the Arctic has owls, where the cold tundra is home to snowy owls. Thick, warm feathers cover even their bills and toes, providing effective insulation against roaring winds and freezing temperatures.
Many owl species have a thick covering of feathers on their legs and feet, which protects them from snake and rat bites.
If you saw a young owl next to its parent, they would not look the same! For example, adult spectacled owls have a white face surrounded by dark feathers, while in the chicks the colors are reversed.
Most owls live in trees, but burrowing owls live in underground burrows.
Satellite tracking studies indicate that the snowy owl’s range is huge, with some birds flying more than 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) in just 11 days.
Owls have a reversible outer toe that can be pointed forward or backward, depending on the owl’s position, to ensure a secure hold on its prey.

Owls to the rescue!

San Diego Zoo Global has had owls in our collection since our start. In 1926, the Taronga Park Zoo in Australia asked for a supply of our owls to be sent to Lord Howe Island, off the southern coast of Australia, to help with its exploding rat population. We sent several of our barn owls to help!

Today, our collection includes great horned and screech owls as well as Eurasian eagle-owls and milky eagle-owls. Most of our owls live in off-exhibit areas and are used in our animal shows and presentations, where guests can learn fun facts about these amazing birds and perhaps see one fly overhead. At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Ridge habitat, there is an exhibit of burrowing owls, a local yet little-known species. As burrowing owls are active during the day, chances are pretty good that you’ll see them out and about!

Milky eagle-owls

The Safari Park’s milky eagle-owl brothers are named Hinckley and Thatcher. They hatched one week apart to the same parents at Zoo Atlanta in 2006 and arrived here when they were four and five weeks old. They weigh almost 4 pounds (1,700 grams) and fly over the audience during the Park’s Frequent Flyers bird show. The brothers are also part of the Park’s up-close Animal Encounters program, as they really enjoy being with people. Hinckley likes to play with rocks, and he has his special rock that he carries around in his enclosure. Sometimes his trainers have to wait for him to put it down so he can fly in the show. Thatcher traveled to New York City to be featured on CBS This Morning.

Eurasian eagle-owl

The Zoo’s Eurasian eagle-owl is named Einstein; she was named before we learned she was a female! Einstein talks to her trainers by utilizing several different calls, chirps, and hoots. Her role in the Camp Critters animal show is to come out for the curtain call. Weighing just under 5 pounds (2.2 kilograms), Einstein is very close to her trainers and even allows them to pet her (on her terms, of course). She loves a great shower from the garden hose on warm days!

Helpful owls

Whether you live in the city or the country, owls help us by controlling rodent and insect populations. But we often treat owls as enemies, and they fall victim to poison when fields are sprayed to kill weeds, insects, and rodents. We can help owls by finding other ways to control pests: for example, let owls and other predators do this job. They also need open spaces and trees if they are to survive. Each owl species has different needs: some need forests, like the spotted owl, while the largest owl, the Eurasian eagle-owl, needs large territories and large prey.

Local species: burrowing owl

The burrowing owl is a local species declining rapidly in San Diego County. San Diego Zoo Global is working with various federal and local agencies to help them. We started with the ground and the California ground squirrels that dig in it. The ground was prepared by conducting “vegetation manipulation” designed to create the more open grassland habitat favored by ground squirrels and burrowing owls. Squirrels’ burrowing activity creates refuges for a variety of wildlife, including nesting sites for burrowing owls, and their foraging activities keep the vegetation low and more open.

In addition, “burrow cams” were placed in the owls’ underground nests to observe how they care for their developing chicks. We are hopeful that this research will give us a richer and more detailed picture of burrowing owls’ breeding and foraging patterns and new insights into their ecology that will help define strategies that can be used regionally to restore unique and irreplaceable grassland systems that define much of the West. We are already making plans to launch a second California-wide program examining ecological and genetic factors that may be contributing to the owls’ decline.

Read a blog about this project...

You can help owls, too

If we set aside wilderness areas, we will help all owls. Then laws need to be enforced so owls are not hunted or poisoned. And if we live in cities, nest boxes can be put up that make it possible for some owl species to live in populated areas. We need to remember that owls play an important role in nature, and we need to ensure a promising future for them wherever they live.