What are owl ear-tufts for, if not hearing?

BBC Wildlife contributor Mike Toms answers your wild question.

A
a
-
Long-eared owl

Long-eared owls have ear tufts, each consisting of 6-8 feathers © Steven Flaherty / Getty

 

Roughly a third of owl species worldwide have ear tufts or ‘horns’. These appendages are mainly used for display and visual communication, but are also thought to play a role in camouflage, breaking up the bird’s outline against its background.

Each tuft is comprised of one or more feathers (those of the long-eared owl have 6–8). These are usually flattened against the head and thus difficult to see, but are swiftly raised when an individual is agitated by a potential intruder and needs to carry out its threat display.

Owls will sometimes raise their ear tufts at human observers, and long-eared owls are also known to raise theirs during the display-flight used to advertise ownership of a breeding territory.

Ear tufts play no role in hearing – an owl’s ears are located lower down on its head, on the margin of the facial disk. In fact, there are no obvious external signs of their presence.

 

Click here to read more of our Wildlife Q&As.

Do you have a wildlife question you’d like answered? Email your question to wildquestions@immediate.co.uk or post it to Q&A, BBC Wildlife Magazine, Immediate Media Company, 2nd Floor, Tower House, Fairfax Street, Bristol BS1 3BN

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here