Are Owls Mammals?

Written by Heather Ross
Updated: September 29, 2022
© Walker
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Key Points:

  • Mammals have distinctive traits, some of which owls have like a backbone and lungs to breathe. Owls don’t, however, have live births, nurse their young, or have fur.
  • Owls have many bird traits, such as feathers, wings, and the ability to lay eggs.
  • While they are birds, owls do have three traits that set them apart from the typical bird: their eyes can’t move side to side, their ears are asymmetrical, and they have a reversible toe.
  • There are over 250 types of owls.

Owls live in every part of the world except Antarctica and some remote islands. These large-eyed, nocturnal raptors are among the most mysterious, intriguing members of the animal kingdom. Are owls mammals? Read on to find out.

The ancient Greeks believed they were an omen of good luck. In their mythology, owls were the companion of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Ever since, owls have been regarded as wise and mysterious.

The ancient Celts believed owls were the spirits who guided humans to the underworld. Other cultures have associated owls with witchcraft and occult beliefs.

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These birds stand straight on their feet and have thick, fluffy feathers. For these reasons, people think they look more like a large, winged mammal than a bird. However, owls also lay eggs and they can fly.

Owls are birds.

What Is a Mammal?

All mammals, with two odd exceptions, share these characteristics.

  • They have a backbone that allows them to stand up straight.
  • They give birth to live offspring.
  • They are warm-blooded.
  • Mammals are covered in hair or fur.
  • They nurse their offspring.
  • Mammals use their lungs to breathe.

The exceptions to this rule are the odd animals known as monotremes, who lay eggs but have all the other characteristics of mammals. They are considered mammals.

Owls have a backbone and use their lungs to breathe, but they don’t fit the other criteria of a mammal. They don’t nurse their young, have fur, or give birth to live offspring.

Are Owls Mammals
An Eagle Owl soars low over a long grassy meadow. Like many raptors, these owls are top predators – they hunt other animals for food but no animals hunt them on a regular basis.

©Richard Whitcombe/

What Is a Bird?

What are the characteristics of birds? Here are the traits required to be classed as a bird.

  • Feathers: These soft coverings evolved from scales. Some feathers are used for flight, and others are used for warmth and protection.
  • Wings: Birds are not the only winged animal, but wings are an essential bird trail. All birds have wings, even those that don’t fly.
  • Beak or bill: All birds have a beak or bill. The bill’s shape gives you clues about the bird’s diet and its abilities as a raptor.
  • Eggs: All birds lay eggs. Eggs are not exclusive to birds. Other animals, including amphibians and fish, also lay eggs. Most birds build nests to shelter their eggs and offspring.
  • Skeleton: Birds have a vertebra and a full skeleton. Birds that fly have hollow bones that keep them lightweight. Flightless birds, including penguins, have heavier bones.

How Do Owls Compare?

Here’s how they stack up when you look at bird characteristics.

  • Feathers: All owls are covered in thick feathers. Owls use their feathers to keep warm and to fly.
  • Wings: All owl species have wings. These fierce predators fly directly onto their prey.
  • Beak: An owl’s beak is sharp and curved. It’s ideal for ripping and tearing meat.
  • Eggs: Owls lay eggs and build nests.
  • Skeleton: Like other flying birds, owls have hollow bones that allow them to get airborne easily.

It’s clear that the Owl is a bird and not a mammal.

Are Owls Mammals
A Snowy owl hunting its prey on a freezing day on a field. Unlike most other owls, they are active during daytime.


What Makes Them Different from Other Birds?

Despite sharing the major characteristics of their fellow birds, they have some key differences.

  • Inability to move their eyes sideways: Owls can’t move their eyes from side to side. Because of this inability, they must move their heads to watch moving objects or prey. That’s why you often see them tilt their heads back and even rotate their heads completely around their bodies.
  • Asymmetrical ears: These raptors have excellent hearing. This is partly because of their irregularly placed ears, which are at different heights on their heads. This uneven placement allows them to hear the slightest sounds. This gives them an enormous advantage when hunting at night.
  • Reversible toe: Like other raptors, owls are zygodactyl. That means they have two forward-facing talons and two backward-facing talons on each foot. One toe can move in both directions. This reversible toe gives them excellent footing and a strong grip on their prey.

How Many Kinds Are There

There are over 250 species of owl. These birds inhabit forests and woodlands all over the world. Here are some noteworthy members of the family.

Nocturnal birds of prey, owls are divided into two categories: Tytonidae, which are barn owns with heart-shaped faces, and Strigidae, non-barn owls.

  • Barn owl: One of the most common birds in the world, the barn owl stands out for its wide, white face and distinctive call. They feast on mice, rats, and other rodents, which is why they are welcome in barns all over the world. These birds mate for life.
  • Snowy owl: This beautiful bird is one of the largest owl species. It is known for the pure white, fluffy feathers that keep it warm in the coldest temperatures. The snowy owl is most active at dawn and dusk. Snowy owls are apex predators in their environment.
  • Long-eared owl: This large owl is known for its long ears that look even larger with their thick tufts of feathers. These owls live in the woods of North America, Europe and parts of Africa. They feed on small animals and can live up to 30 years.

Up Next…

Check out to see if these common creatures are mammals or something else entirely!

The Featured Image

a barn owl, center frame, looking at the camera. Only the frony of the bird id visible and s white, except for the owl's eyes, which are dark and round. A star beak that is light gray is at the low center of the owl's face. The owl is perched in the hollow of a tree. The tree's bark fills in frames left and right, with a bit of green visible at the edge of frame right.
Are Owls Mammals
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About the Author

Heather Ross is a secondary English teacher and mother of 2 humans, 2 tuxedo cats, and a golden doodle. In between taking the kids to soccer practice and grading papers, she enjoys reading and writing about all the animals!

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are owls herbivores, carnivores or omnivores?

They are carnivores. They hunt and eat other animals.

What do they do in the daytime?

During the day, they stay in their burrows and sleep.

Most owls are night owls, but a few owls are the exception to that rule. The northern hawk owl, burrowing owl and snowy owl often hunt in the daytime.

According to some legends, seeing an owl in the daytime is a sign that you have been granted wisdom.

What is the name for a group of owls?

The term is a parliament of owls. This phrase first appeared in the book The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. The phrase became so popular that it is now the accepted term for a group of these wise birds.

Do owls make good pets?

The popularity of the Harry Potter books and movies made many people think they would like an owl as a pet. This is a terrible idea for several reasons.

First, it is illegal in most places to own a raptor as a pet. Second, they are not suited to live in captivity. Third, all raptors can be dangerous. If they feel threatened, they can attack humans and small pets.

What do owls eat?

Smaller nocturnal owls eat small rodents, including squirrels, rabbits, mice, voles and chipmunks. These small creatures are also active at night, so they offer many hunting opportunities.

Owls that hunt in the daytime, like barred owls, are large. They can hunt larger animals, including skunks, rabbits and birds. Some even hunt other owls.

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