Owls are any of the 248 bird species in the Strigiformes order. Within this order, the larger Strigidae family contains 228 species known as typical owls, while the smaller Tytonidae family includes 20 species of barn owls and their relatives (grass owls, masked owls, and bay owls). The majority of owls are nocturnal and solitary, although there are exceptions, such as the diurnal and communal burrowing owl. However, all owls are birds of prey, and camouflage is often a key part of their hunting strategy. This means that, unlike some other groups of birds, such as parrots which are known for their diversity of bright colors, owls tend towards a more limited and subtle color palette. However, this relative lack of color diversity is often offset by intricate patterning, with each species using a combination of colors to create its unique appearance.
Where Do Owls Get Their Feather Colors From?
Two different classes of biological pigments contribute to owl feather coloration. The first of these are known as melanins. Melanins are common pigments throughout the bird world — and, indeed, in all vertebrates, including us humans! These same pigments give us our range of hair and skin color. Eumelanin is the darker brown/black version of melanin, which can also produce tans and grays when diluted. Meanwhile, pheomelanin is the lighter brown version which also makes ruddy reds and sandy yellows (again, think human hair color).
The other pigments are known as porphyrins. These are rarer in the bird world, mainly found in owls, pigeons, gamefowl, and turacos. These pigments produce greens, pinks, reds, and browns. In owls, it is generally the latter two colors that contribute to feathers, although sometimes they might also give the slightest hint of green or pink hue. At least, this is how it appears to our eyes under natural light. However, a fascinating quality of owl porphyrins is that they also glow bright pink under UV light. While we cannot see this without special equipment, birds do see into the UV spectrum. This means owls look very different to each other than they do to us!
How Does Color Vary Within Owl Species?
Just as the human species has natural color variations due to melanins, so too can owl species. Individual barn owls (Tyto alba), for example, display a rather high degree of natural variation in both color and pattern. Other species have distinct color morphs, such as the eastern screech owl (Megascops asio), which has rufous, gray, and brown forms. Genetic mutations also cause aberrant coloration in individual birds (see #4 White and #5 Dark Gray/Black below for examples).
#1 All Kinds of Brown: The Most Common Owl Color
Brown is by far the most commonly seen color throughout the owl order. Every shade, from the lightest tan to the darkest brown, appears in the owl world, thanks to a combination of both melanins and porphyrins. Of course, given how many owl species live in and amongst trees, it should be no surprise that brown is such a popular plumage color!
#2 Rufous and Tawny
Shades of rufous red and tawny yellow are also commonly seen in many owls. A combination of pheomelanin and porphyrin pigments is responsible for producing these colors. The color is especially well-represented in the Tytonidae family, with almost every species of barn, masked, and bay owl sporting it as part of their plumage. Additionally, some owl species exhibit distinct rufous morphs.
While not quite as common as shades of brown and rufous or tawny, gray is another color often seen in owls. For many, it is just one element of their complex color patterning. However, some owl species do take on an overall gray appearance. These include the appropriately named great gray owl (Strix nebulosa) and sooty owl (Tyto tenebricosa). Additionally, some of the same species which have rufous morphs also have gray morphs.
If a feather is lacking in both pigment and structural color, it will just appear white. White feathers are common in the owl world, with nearly every species showing at least a sprinkling of white somewhere on their body. Larger patches of white are most often found just on the face and front parts. White also often makes up part of the barring and speckling patterns seen on other parts. However, only a single species possesses the majority white plumage, the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). This owl makes its home in the Arctic tundra, and so in its case, white is the best color to employ for camouflage.
Additionally, genetic mutations can cause any individual owl to have partial or total aberrant white coloration. These include leucism, which can cause a partial or total loss of pigmentation over some or all of the plumage, and albinism, which inhibits all melanin production throughout the body. Leucism is far more commonly seen with partial leucism, also called piebald. True albino owls are rare in comparison. A common way to differentiate between the two is to look at the eyes; in true albinos, the eyes lack pigment as well, making them appear either red or icy gray-blue depending on how the light hits them.
#5 Dark Grey/Black
Similar to white, black feathers are usually just found as markings on the face and as elements of patterning elsewhere. However, they are less commonly seen than white feathers. Furthermore, while several owl species appear very dark brown, such as some boobooks (Ninox spp.), there are only a few that display significant amounts of truly dark grey or black plumage. The species include the sooty owl, black-and-white owl (Strix nigrolineata), and black-banded owl (Strix huhula). Of these, only the black-banded owl comes close to looking as mostly black, as the snowy owl is primarily white.
Just as some mutations can cause any owl species to grow abnormal areas of white plumage, so too can certain melanism mutations cause an overproduction of eumelanin, which in turn can turn some or all of an owl’s plumage abnormally dark. Melanistic owls are much rarer than leucistic owls, but ornithologists have documented the mutation in several species, such as barn owls.
Summary of 5 Colors Of Owls (Most Common to Rarest)
|#1 Brown||eumelanins, pheomelanins, porphyrins||most common plumage color throughout the owl order; wide range of shades from light to dark brown|
|#2 Rufous and Tawny||pheomelanins, porphyrins||common body colors; some species also have rufous morphs|
|#3 Gray||diluted eumelanins||common body color; some species also have gray morphs|
|#4 White||lack of pigment or structural color||common highlight color found in face markings and as part of patterning; only the snowy owl is majority white; genetic mutations including leucism and albinism can cause individual birds to grow abnormally white feathers|
|#5 Dark Gray/Black||eumelanins||generally only seen in small quantities as part of face markings and patterning; only a few species have significant amounts; melanism mutation can cause individual birds to grow abnormally dark feathers|
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Banu R/iStock via Getty Images
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