Most, though not all, owls are nocturnal so they are often not so well-known by birdwatchers and scientists alike. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, they have long featured in our folklore and myths, though in very contradictory fashion. Being nocturnal they are often associated with the supernatural and magic (the witches in Macbeth required "howlet's wing", along with "eye of newt and toe of frog" for their broth). Yet, whether they are correcting the spelling of a bear of little brain, or sailing away in a pea-green boat, they are also associated with wisdom, perhaps because of their wide-eyed stare and slow movements when suprised during the day. Indeed the Little Owl gets its generic name from an early association with the Greek goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athene.
All owls are easily recognised by their rounded bodies, upright stance and large eyes, and all have powerful, feathered legs and feet with sharp talons for grasping prey. They hunt by stealth, mostly for small rodents, and have a number of adaptations to help them fly silently, including a particularly soft plumage with fringes to the to the main flight feathers. Prey are usually swallowed whole, and the indigestible remains subsequently regurgitated as pellets once or twice day; with care these can be dissected and the diet of the individual deduced from the bones.
Owls have a worldwide distribution and occur in almost all habitats from deserts to the polar wastes. The Barn and Grass Owls are placed in separate family (Tytonidae) on the basis of a number of anatomical differences (including heart-shaped, not rounded, faces; a wishbone fused to the breastbone, and differences in the structure of their toes).
The typical owl in Britain is the Tawny Owl, famed for its "tu-whit, tu-whoo" call, though this is only one of a diverse repertoire (and usually represents two individuals calling). However, the species most likely to be seen is the almost ghostly Barn Owl, which can increasingly be seen hunting over fields in twilight.