True Owls vs Barn Owls: What Are The Differences?

Written by Jeremiah Wright
Published: May 15, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/Paolino Massimiliano Manuel
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Owls have captivated people over the years. True owls belong to one of the two families of owls called the Strigidae. This is a vast family containing almost 25 genres with over 220 existing species. The other is a barn owl belonging to the Tytonidae family. In total, there are approximately 20 classified species of barn owls. Both owls are considered “birds of prey” because they eat other birds, fish, and small rodents for food. With species found everywhere except Antarctica, they are regarded as cosmopolitan. But even with these striking similarities, it would interest you to know that there are many differences between these avians. So, what are the differences between true owls and barn owls, and how can you tell them apart? 

This article will compare the true birds with barn owls based on their appearance, calls, habitat, and behaviors to show the distinct variations they exhibit. We will also analyze their hunting styles and overall lifespans. Let’s dive into it!

Comparing True Owls vs Barn Owls

True owls and barn owls differ in appearance feeding habits, habitats, calls, and lifespan.

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True Owls Barn Owls
Physical Appearance-Many species have ear tufts on their heads covered in feathers.
-They have large heads and round facial discs around their eyes.
-They have yellow or orange eyes.
-They have a great heart
-Shaped facial disc.
-Presence of long, strong legs with powerful talons.
-Dark eyes and an absence of ear tufts.
CallsTrue owls make hooting calls.Barn owls don’t hoot; rather, they make eerie-sounding screams.
HabitatsThese birds are found worldwide except in Antarctica.Barn owls occur everywhere except in the cold, temperate, and arctic regions. They prefer open places and live away from humans.
BehaviorThey exhibit nocturnal behaviors and have specialized morphology for their wings.Barn owls are nocturnal birds.
ColorThey have brown or gray vertical or horizontal markings, and their underbellies are usually white.Barn owls are usually an orange-black color. Their breasts are white.
Hunting StylesThey are mostly seen as “tame” since they show no movement unless you are very close. Barn owls are opportunistic feeders. They are excellent hunters and fly in open spaces. 
LifespanUp to 25 years5-10 years
Other namesTypical owlsSweetheart owls

The Key Differences Between True Owls and Barn Owls

The key differences between true owls and barn owls are appearance feeding habits, habitats, calls, and lifespan.

The major differences between true owls and barn owls lie in their physical appearance and their calls. However, other distinct differences are helpful to tell them apart when seen in the wild. True owls can rotate their heads up to 270 degrees without causing damage to their necks or ceasing the flow of blood. While roosting, the ear tufts provide an impressive ability to camouflage themselves. They can fly to great heights to avoid the distractions of small birds and can locate sounds of different magnitudes. True owls are mostly monogamous, and early breeding in winter takes them into the spring season, in which there is enough prey to feed on.

In contrast, barn owls have long legs, which is an adaptation for diving into long grasses and catching small mammals which they feed on. According to the Journal of Experimental Biology, they have unique night vision, and coupled with an exceptional sense of hearing, they can detect movement when there is hardly any light. Studies have shown that a barn owl can hunt and kill mice in the utmost darkness in a lab setting. A fully grown barn owl will have a body length of 16 inches, a wingspan of about 4 feet long, and may weigh over a pound and a half.

Now, let’s further examine more details and explore the beautiful worlds of these birds.

True Owls vs Barn Owls: Physical Appearance

Silver Animals - Great Gray Owl
True owl species have ear tufts that enable them to camouflage themselves while roosting.

Erik Mandre/Shutterstock.com

Except for the elf owls, true owls are generally large and are characterized by round facial discs designed in such a way to channel the sounds directly into their ears. These ears help them find the precise origin of the sound. True owl species have ear tufts that enable them to camouflage themselves while roosting. They have yellow or orange eyes and large wings with a wide range of wingspans. They have short tails and cryptic plumage.

Barn owls are often regarded as “sweetheart owls” because of their well-known heart-shaped facial discs. They are distinguished from true owls by their faces, long, lower-positioned beaks, and smaller eyes. They have darker eyes and no ear tufts. They have large eyes and long legs armed with mighty talons. Their round wings also distinguish them with short tails covered with brown, downy feathers.

True Owls vs Barn Owls: Behavior and Feeding Habits

Animals That Stay Up All Night - Barn Owl
Barn owls are generally non-migratory and live singly or in pairs.

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Both birds exhibit nocturnal behaviors, meaning they hide or sleep during the day but venture out at night to hunt. However, only the barn owls show sexual dimorphism in their plumage because of their nocturnal modes. Barn owls are generally non-migratory and live singly or in pairs. Both carnivorous, their diets consist majorly of small rodents like field mice and insects, frogs, lizards, baby rabbits, and other birds. Yet, barn owls prefer to eat their prey, including skin, bones, and feathers. Barn owls can eat a thousand mice in a year!

True Owls vs Barn Owls: Habitat

Are Owls Mammals
True owls like to live in old-growth forests with thick vegetation.

They are both cosmopolitan and widespread, with species inhabiting every continent except Antarctica. True owls like to live in old-growth forests with thick vegetation. Their preferred habitats include everything from arctic tundra to marshlands, dense forests, and deserts, and they are also abundant in agricultural fields. As their name suggests, barn owls prefer to rest in abandoned barns and belfries. They are also found in low elevations and open spaces far from human habitations where they can hunt.

True Owls vs Barn Owls: Calls

The true owls make hooting sounds that slowly wane down, while the barn owls make screeching calls, which is the same as an eerie piercing scream. 

True Owl vs Barn Owls: Lifespan

True owls can live for about 25 years in the wild but tend to live much longer when in captivity. The size of true owls also affects their lifespan, as larger owls tend to live longer than smaller owls. Their main predator is the great horned owl.

Barn owls live around five to ten years.

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