How To Identify Owl Feathers – Best Guide On Recognizing Owl Feathers

How to identify owl feathers – An Intensive Guide On Recognizing Owl Feathers

Finding a new feather when birding is one of the most exciting parts of the birding hobby. There are so many amazing birds in the forest that finding one you don’t recognize can be a true thrill. For example, you may find feathers around a well-known owl nesting site and think you’ve found what are, sometimes, hard-to-find feathers. Do you have the real deal, or are you mistaken?

We’re here to help you find out! In this intensive guide, you’ll learn about some of the essential owl feather identification tips available today to birders. These tips will help you understand the typical length of an owl feather and what a few common owl feathers look like when found in the wild. While we can’t cover every possible species, we’ll do what we can to ensure you understand as many as possible.

What Does an Owl Feather Look Like?

Owl feathers can look fairly different depending on the species. They’re typically around six inches long or so, though some may get as long as eight inches in larger owls. A typical owl feather has a shape similar to most other bird species: an oval look that ends at the tip where the feather attaches to the body. Depending on an owl’s habitat, owl feathers are often striped between two colors.

How to Identify Owl Feathers
Female Snowy Owl Tail Feathers. Image courtesy of

For instance, owls that live in northern regions may have whiter feathers that match the snow common throughout the area. Some species even have feathers that match the colors of the trees in which they primarily roost! So, an owl that roosts in an area with grayer trees may have feathers that match these patterns. Even cooler, owl feathers may even mimic the mold color commonly found on these trees!

As a result, it isn’t always easy to gauge whether or not a feather belongs to an owl. Generally, if it is a reasonably long feather (over six inches) and found in an area where owls nest, it probably comes from one. You are more likely to find owl feathers when the temperatures rise during molting seasons. Getting rid of these unnecessary feathers helps owls stay comfortable in extreme heat.

How to Identify Owl Feathers
Adult Female Eastern Screech-Owl from Bay County, FL. Image courtesy of

If you’re in the wild and find a feather that you think might belong to an owl, check your birding guide to see what species live in that area. Check the color patterns on the owl and match it to that bird’s color. The feather should share the same colors as an owl species. If not, you may have found a hawk feather or one from a similar species.

How Long is an Owl Feather?

How to Identify Owl Feathers
Barn Owl Primary Wing Feathers. Note that they range from 17-25 cm (7-10 inches) long.
Image courtesy of

Owl feathers will vary in length not only depending on the species but the feather type. Typically, a bird’s feather is anywhere from one-third to about half-their full body length. Let’s look at the barn owl to understand how long feathers might get on an owl. For reference, the barn owl is typically 13-15 inches long with a wingspan between 31-37 inches or so in length.

How to Identify Owl Feathers
Barn Owl Secondary Wing Feathers. Note that these are only 12-16 cm (5-6 inches) long.
Image courtesy of

When examining a typical barn owl feather, it is not uncommon to find some that are nearly seven inches or so in length: which is about half the length of a typical barn owl body. Note that this is closer to a quarter or so of the wingspan or just under half the length of a typical barn owl wing. However, there are feathers on barn owl bodies that may be as short as five inches or so.

How to Identify Owl Feathers
Barn Owl Tail Feathers. Note that the tail feathers of this barn owl are nearly as long as the primary wing feathers. However, they’re a different shape- more rounded, where the primaries have a more pointed tip.
Image courtesy of

These differences typically occur because of size differences throughout the body. Wing feathers are typically longer because they help provide more lift and fit on a larger part of the bird’s body. Feathers near the bottom of a bird are smaller and softer to give them a more comfortable place to sit and more warmth during colder seasons.

Related post: How to Identify Turkey Feathers

The Types of Feathers an Owl May Have

Bird feathers are not as simple as they might seem because they come in five different types. These feathers may vary in shape and size, as well as purpose. As a result, it is essential to understand the minor differences between these types when identifying owl feathers. These feather variations (including their purpose) are:

  • Contour Feathers: These cover the body, wing, and tail and come in many different sizes. They’re probably the largest, most obvious, and most common feathers you’ll find. They are also called pennaceous feathers, and include primaries, secondaries, and tail feathers
  • Down Feathers: Down feathers are designed to trap air close to an owl’s body to create a layer of insulation that keeps them comfortable.
  • Semiplume Feathers: These feathers fill between contour and down and create a fluffier bird. They’re not as common to find as other types.
  • Bristles: Bristle feathers occur around the eyes, eyelashes, and base of an owl’s bill and are rather sharp and not commonly found.
  • Filoplumes: These hairlike feathers cover other feathers to help improve vibration senses and give owls a better understanding of their environment.

Most feathers you’re likely to find are contour because they’re the most common and most likely to fall out of an owl’s body. However, you may also find the small feathers listed here. They typically have the same colors but are either smaller or fluffier than contour feathers. The descriptions included here are focused on contour feathers.

Related post: How To Identify Bald Eagle Feathers

What Does a Barred Owl Feather Look Like?

How to Identify Owl Feathers
Barred Owl Tail Feathers. Image courtesy of

A barred owl feather typically varies in length from 4 to 7 inches and is typically fairly easy to identify. Like all owl feathers, they have a small stem at the tip where they attach to the body. Always hold the feather from this tip to minimize damage to the individual strands throughout the feather’s body. Towards the end of the tip, you usually get a medium-tone brown throughout the end.

How to Identify Owl Feathers
Barred Owl Primary Wing Feathers. Image courtesy of

The rest of the feather typically alternates white and brown patches fairly evenly, though the patches may differ on the stem sides. For example, the thickest side usually has more even stripes, while the shorter end has long brown and shorter white stripes. Typically, the end is white, and the edges around the varying stripes are pretty even, which makes them fairly easy to identify and measure if necessary.

Barn Owl Feather Identification Tips

How to Identify Owl Feathers
Male Barn Owl Tail Feathers. Image courtesy of

Barn owl feathers aren’t typically as uniform as barred owl feathers. Male feathers are typically much lighter and feathers far more white than they do brown. Some of the shorter feathers closer to the body may have stripes throughout the edges, though others may have streaks of brown throughout. Female barn owl feathers are typically more colorful, with stripes of brown and white throughout.

How to Identify Owl Feathers
Male Barn Owl Primary Feathers. Image courtesy of

Note that this same variation in shapes and colors is also common for barred owls. As we mentioned, feather colors often vary based on where they’re located on the body. More colorful feathers are typically saved for the longer contour feathers on the outside, while lighter feathers are located closer to the body to provide better insulation and to avoid catching the eye of an owl’s prey if the sun hits it at the right angle.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between a Hawk Feather and an Owl Feather?

How to Identify Owl Feathers
Great Horned Owl Primary Wing Feather. Image courtesy of

Owl feathers are typically larger than hawk feathers but softer. They feel gentler on the hand and are usually smoother on the edges. A hawk feather often has sharper edges along the feather’s exterior and through its stripes. They’re also shorter because hawks are often smaller than owls or have shorter wings. Hawk feathers are typically darker and feature fewer patches or stripe variations.

How to Identify Owl Feathers
Red Tailed Hawk Primary Wing Feathers. Image courtesy of

Hawk feathers are also more commonly found in deeper wooded areas with taller trees. Hawks prefer nesting higher in trees so that they can take off more easily and see their prey more easily. Owls also like nesting high in trees but are usually a bit closer to the ground than hawks. As a result, you may find hawk feathers around taller trees than you would owl feathers, though this may vary by species.

Still suspecting if what you have is a hawk feather? Check out our in depth post on How To Identify Red Tailed Hawk Feathers.

Are Owl Feathers Illegal to Have?

How to Identify Owl Feathers
Northern Saw-whet Owl Tail Feathers. Image courtesy of

If you find an owl feather, it is probably best to take a picture of it for identification and leave it there. That’s because taking home an owl feather is typically illegal because of The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This regularly updated treaty makes it illegal to “pursue, hunt, kill, capture, possess, buy, sell, purchase, or barter” with any part of a migratory bird covered by the treaty’s terms.

This treaty does cover owls because they often migrate throughout various parts of the world. As a result, even taking a feather home is illegal, even if you don’t plan on selling the feather for a profit. Note that some expectations may apply. For instance, some Native American tribes may be allowed to collect owl feathers if they are important to their culture on their land.

However, if you’re caught possessing a feather from a bird covered by this act, you may be penalized with fines and even jail time. The likelihood of getting discovered for taking one owl feather home with you is very low, naturally. But the risk is not worth it and we strongly recommend that you just take a picture to show to friends to minimize the risk of any serious legal troubles.

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Important Spiritual Meanings When Finding Owl Feathers

How to Identify Owl Feathers

Owls have long been one of the most important and spiritual birds in multiple different cultures. That’s why it’s not too surprising to learn that finding owl feathers has many meanings, all of which are positive. Remember: owls were long considered among the most intelligent and insightful birds on the planet, so their symbolism is almost always positive.

Owls were praised as strong and skilled hunters in cultures where that skill was vitally important. As a result, their feathers may also symbolize strength and stability and other similar ideas. Breaking down these different meanings can help you figure out what the universe may be trying to tell you when you find an owl feather in your favorite birding locations.

What Does Finding an Owl Feather Mean?

How to Identify Owl Feathers

Finding an owl feather has many important meanings that may impact your life if you know how to read them. While the guidance offered by an owl feather may vary depending on the species, they may generally send messages to you about:

  • Spiritual Strength: Owls are intelligent birds in touch with spiritual senses. Finding their feathers may be a message to trust your senses and intuition and follow your spiritual path. It may also symbolize a direct message from the heavens.
  • Healing: Finding an owl feather may mean that you need to relax about your current life situation and let it heal. You’re protected, and your family is safe. There’s no reason to worry about things changing because your life is stable, and you’re healing in positive ways.
  • Potential Financial Success: An owl feather may also show that you will likely experience high financial success soon. Any deals or job changes you might make are likely to be positive ones and will give you the support you need to succeed financially.
  • Guidance From Loved Ones: You might get an owl feather when someone in your past is trying to communicate with you. They are likely trying to tell you to trust your intuition and to do what seems right for you. These feathers may appear when you’re trying to make a tough decision.

However, there are slightly different symbolism types based on the bird feather you may find. As a result, it is important to check the species that you find and confirm which suits your specific life situation and the owl types in your area.

Related post: How To Identify Osprey Feathers

What Does Finding a Barred Owl Feather Mean?

How to Identify Owl Feathers

A barred owl has many different spiritual meanings, each of which may be connected to its feathers. Typically, they represent persistence and staying on your given path. You will likely find a barred owl feather when your life is going through difficult times. The feather will tell you that it’s okay to struggle and that your results will probably be positive when you finish.

Furthermore, the barred owl also tells you to stay true to who you are, stay individualistic, and avoid giving in to pressures to conform. Success will come to you by sticking to your path and doing what you’re doing. The barred owl is trying to tell you to trust yourself and your life path and to avoid listening to negative thoughts or feedback from others in your life.

What Does Finding a Great Horned Owl Feather Mean?

How to Identify Owl Feathers

Great horned owls have a long and expansive spiritual history and have been used by many cultures as an essential touchstone for spiritual discovery. Their horns (which are obviously symbolic and not physical) symbolize a connection with the heavens and psychic abilities. Finding one of their feathers means you need to trust people in your life and build personal bonds with others.

Horned owls also symbolize trusting your personal strength and focusing on improving yourself and your life through self-enhancement. Pay attention to your spiritual needs and do what you can to identify ways to improve your connection to the spiritual realm. The horned owl is renowned for its large eyes, which is symbolic of great inner vision and spiritual understanding.

Conclusions – How to Identify an Owl Feather

We hope this guide has helped you learn more about identifying owl feathers, their meanings, and the various types of owls that they belong to.

Whether you are looking for spiritual meanings or bettering your birding skills, feather identification is a useful and intriguing topic.