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

BBC Wildlife contributor Mike Toms answers your wild question.

Eagle Owl hunting

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.

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