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Owls General

Owls General

Owls, especially the larger ones, were favourites of the Iroquois and Micmac (Mi'kmaq) [1, 2]. Attawapiskat, James Bay and Mistissini Cree were also known to eat owl [3-6]. Owl was one of the few birds of prey consumed by the Red Earth Cree [7] and was especially savoured by the Kaska [8, 9]. Owls were known to be abundant to Algonquian and Iroquois of the Mississippi Valley, the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes [10].

The Iroquois, Micmac and others boiled the birds until half-cooked and then roasted them [1, 2]. The Attawapiskat also boiled owl with heart, lungs and kidneys still attached [11]. Among the Plains Cree, the liver, heart and gizzard were eaten, but not the kidneys. The head was sometimes boiled in soup [12, 13].

Uses other than food

Some cultures considered the owl to have medicinal powers. The oil collected from cooking owl was used as medicine by the Iroquois and Micmac [1, 2]. Some Yukon cultures did not consume owl, but shamans consulted them for their expertise [14, 15]. The Blackfoot also respected the owl’s medicinal powers [16].

Some peoples used the owl feathers. The Kaska used owl feathers to tip special arrows designed for hunting grouse and spruce hen. Each arrow had two or three feathers [9]. The Lillooet, Tahltan, and some Arctic peoples also made arrows with owl feathers [17-19]. In the Yukon, owls were hunted for their feather spines to make snares or to use the feathers in arrows and rituals [15]. The Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) hunted owls for their plumage as well as for their meat [20].

Beliefs and taboos

Consuming owl was considered taboo for many. The Coast Salish, Chilcotin, Gitksan (Gitxsan), Tlingit, Stalo and others were strongly opposed to eating owl [21-25].

The owl was highly regarded by many cultures that used this bird as a clan symbol. Owls were associated by the Pueblo with dusk, the night and the moon. Similarly, the Mystic Owl Society hung owl skin in their lodge to symbolize the night darkness [26].

In the Yukon, the owl was associated with the supernatural and held great ceremonial significance [14]. The owl was sometimes featured in Arctic stories. The legend of the greedy owl tells of an owl, a raven, a gull, a falcon and a skua living in a cave in human form. When trying to please a new guest, each bird went in search of the best food, but the owl tried to chase two hares at once, tearing himself in two [17].

Stories of owls were often used to frighten or discipline children in the Yukon [14]. The Kutenai (Kootenai) also frightened children into good behaviour with tales that the owl would come to take them away [27].

The Shuswap hunter blew on his arrow before shooting an owl, believing this would ensure he would hit the target [28]. In the Yukon, it was thought that owls pleaded to their hunters not to shoot. Some cultures believed that owls flying and hooting nearby warned of bad luck, death and disaster [14, 16] and the rapidity of an owl’s hooting was thought to predict the weather: for example, a slow hoot in morning foretells a warm day [16].

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls were consumed by several Arctic cultures and by more southern cultures, when available. The Snowy Owl was prized for its superior taste by the Han, but this bird was rarely available [29]. The Snowy Owl is reported to have been eaten in winter by Nuvorugmiut (Inuvialuit) and Ontario First Nations [30, 31]. The Peel River Kutchin (Gwich’in) relished Snowy Owls [32]. Inuit and Kaska also hunted Snowy Owl in winter when other food was scarce [8, 9]. The Hare (Sahtu) also hunted the Snowy Owl for food [33]. Arctic peoples ate Snowy Owl flesh and blood raw [17, 34]; however, many cultures cooked the bird. A Snowy Owl’s wing was also made into a broom to sweep out igloos [17].

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owls were hunted for food by the Hare (Sahtu) [33] and, on occasion, by the Peel River Kutchin (Gwich’in) [32]. The Han considered Great Horned Owls as a welcome treat [29].

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owls were eaten on occasion by the Peel River Kutchin (Gwich’in) [32] and considered as a welcome treat by the Han [29].

Burrowing Owl

The Arikara used the skin of the Burrowing Owls to make medicine parcels [26].

Long-eared Owl

The Arikara used the skin of Long-eared Owls to make medicine parcels [26].


1.         Waugh FW. In: Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation. edn. Ottawa: Department of Mines. Government Printing Bureau; 1973.

2.         Stoddard NB: Micmac Foods, vol. re-printed from the Journal of Education February 1966. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Halifax Natural Science Museum; 1970.

3.         Elberg N, Hyman J, Hyman K, Salisbury RF: Not By Bread Alone: The Use of Subsistence Resources among James Bay Cree. In.; 1975.

4.         Rogers ES: Subsistence Areas of the Cree-Ojibwa of the Eastern Subarctic: A Preliminary Study. Contributions of Ethnology V 1967, No. 204:59-90.

5.         Rogers ES: Subsistence. In: The Hunting Group-Hunting Territory Complex among the Mistassini Indians. edn. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada Bulletin No. 195; 1963: 32-53.

6.         Rogers ES: The Quest for Food and Furs: The Mistassini Cree, 1953-1954, vol. 1st edition. Ottawa: National Musems of Canada; 1973.

7.         Meyer D: Appendix I: Plants, Animals and Climate; Appendix IV: Subsistence-Settlement Patterns. In: The Red Earth Crees, 1860-1960. Volume 1st edition, edn.: National Musem of Man Mercury Series; 1985: 175-185-200-223.

8.         Weyer EM: The Eskimos: Their Environment and Folkways. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books; 1969.

9.         Honigmann JJ: The Kaska Indians: An Ethnographic Reconstruction. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1954.

10.       Hughes JD: Forest Indians: the holy occupation. Environ 1977, NO. 1:2-13.

11.       Honigmann JJ: Foodways in a Muskeg Community: An Anthropological Report on the Attawapiskat Indians. Ottawa: Northern Co-ordination and Research Centre, Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources; 1948.

12.       Post RH: The Subsistence Quest. In: The Sinkaietk or Southern Okanagan of Washington. edn. Edited by Spier L. Menasha, Wisconsin, U. S. A.: George Banta Publishing Company Agent; 1938: 11-33.

13.       Mandelbaum DG: The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical, and Comparative Study, vol. 1st edition. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center; 1979.

14.       McClellan C: My Old People Say: An Ethnographic Survey of Southern Yukon Territory-Part 1. Ottawa: National Musems of Canada; 1975.

15.       McClellan C: A History of the Yukon Indians; Part of the Land, Part of the Water. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre; 1987.

16.       Hungry Wolf A: Some Teachings of Nature, by Atsitsina. In: Blackfoot People. edn. British Columbia: Good Medicine Books; 1975: 53-57.

17.       Vaughan R: Birds and Arctic peoples. In: In Search of Arctic Birds. edn. London: T & A D Poyser; 1992: 20-48.

18.       Albright S: Tahltan Ethnoarchaeology, vol. Department of Archaeology Publication Number 15. Burnaby, B.C.: Department of Archaeology: Simon Fraser University; 1984.

19.       Teit JA: Part V The Lillooet Indians, vol. II. New York; 1906.

20.       Government of British Columbia: Vol 7: Kwakiutl. Victoria: British Columbia Department of Education; 1966.

21.       Emmons GT: Food and Its preparation. In: The Tlingit Indians. edn. Edited by de Laguna F. New York: American Museum of Natural History; 1991: 140-153.

22.       The People of 'Ksan: Gathering What the Great Nature Provided. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, Ltd.; 1980.

23.       Helm J (ed.): Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981.

24.       Duff W: The Upper Stalo Indians of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia. Victoria,B.C.: British Columbia Provincial Museum; 1952.

25.       Barnett HG: Food; Occupations. In: The Coast Salish of British Columbia. Volume 1st edition, edn. Eugene: University of Oregon; 1955: 59-107.

26.       Olsen SL: Animals in American Indian Life: An Overview. In: Stars Above, Earth Below American Indians and Nature. edn. Edited by Bol MC. Dublin: Roberts Rinehart Publishers; 1998: 95-118.

27.       Turney-High HH: Ethnography of the Kutenai. Menasha, Wisconsin: American Anthropological Association; 1941.

28.       Teit JA: The Shuswap, vol. Series: American Museum of Natural Histroy ( The Jesup North Pacific Expedition). New York: AMS PRESS INC.; 1975.

29.       Osgood C: The Han Indians: A Compilation of Ethnographic and Historical Data on the Alaska-Yukon Boundary Area, vol. Yale University Publications in Anthropology Number 74. New Haven: Department of Anthropology Yale University; 1971.

30.       Morrison DA: The Kugaluk Site and the Nuvorugmiut: The Archaeology and History of a Nineteenth-Century Mackenzie Inuit Society. Hull, Quebec: National Musems of Canada; 1988.

31.       Rogers ES: Aboriginal Ontario: historical perspectives on the First Nations. Toronto: Dundurn Press; 1994.

32.       Osgood C: Material Culture: Food. In: Contributions to the Ethnography of the Kutchin. edn. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1936: 23-39.

33.       Hara HS: The Hare Indians and Their World. In. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada; 1980: 95-147.

34.       Damas D (ed.): Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5: Arctic. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1984.

Owls General

Owls General

Owls are medium-sized birds of prey that most often hunt in complete silence between dusk and dawn. Like other birds of prey, they have a hooked beak to tear flesh, strong legs with sharp talons to grasp their prey, and a very keen eye sight. Owls have very large forward-looking eyes, most often bright yellow in colour, and a head that can rotate to allow a 360º view. Most species have excellent hearing and a round facial feather disk directing sounds to their ears to precisely locate prey. In owls, like in eagles and hawks, females are larger than males and the two sexes form monogamous couples. They nest in natural cavities in trees or on the ground. Owls hunt by flying close to the ground or dropping downward from a perch and most prey on birds, small mammals, or insects [1]. In North America, species of owls include the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), the Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa), the Long-eared Owl (Asio otus), and the Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia).

Snowy Owl

The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) is a large species of owl with a circumpolar distribution. In North America, they breed in the tundra along Arctic coastlines and most spend the winter south of their breeding range throughout most of Canada and northern United States. Snowy Owls nest on the ground, usually in a shallow pit, situated on high, dry ground, offering good visibility. The Snowy Owl is closely related to the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), but has a very distinct appearance, having a unique all-white plumage with some dark brown barrings, especially in females and juveniles. They have dense feathers covering almost entirely their beak and feet. They live to around 10 years of age and weigh around 2 kg. They feed mainly on small mammals, particularly on lemmings on their breeding grounds [2]. 

Great Horned Owl

The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is a large species of owl occurring year-round throughout North America south of the Arctic tree line. They are most closely related to the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), but more closely resemble the Long-eared Owl (Asio otus). Great Horned and Long-eared Owls both have a buff brown plumage, rusty facial disks, a black beak, and obvious eartuffs, but the Great Horned Owl is chunkier, weighing up to 2.5 kg, and has eartuffs that are farther apart on the head, and a white chin and neck. They mostly hunt from a perch and take mainly mammals, but also birds. Great Horned Owls use a wide variety of nests, preferring tree nests of other species, but also use tree cavities and cliffs, and will occasional nest on the ground. They are one of the longest lived owls and can reach over 20 years old [3].

Great Gray Owl

The Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) is a large owl species occurring year-round in northern North America, from western Quebec to Alaska and south along the Rocky Mountains. They are most closely related to other species of North American owls, like the Spotted and Barred Owl, all within the same genus. Great Gray Owls are grayish brown with paler underparts and weigh between 0.9 and 1.7 kg. They have a large rounded head, no eartuffs, and wide pale gray facial disks with a white mustache-like pattern below their yellow beak. They are rodent specialists and are good at locating prey under deep snow [4].

Burrowing Owl

The Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) is a small owl species occurring in grassland and arid habitats from the Canadian Prairies throughout western North America. In Canada, they are listed by COSEWIC as endangered. They are mostly brown with white spots and a paler belly, with whitish eyebrows, mustache facial stripes, and very long legs. They are most often ground-dwelling, feeding mainly on insects, and nest in underground communal burrows [5].

Long-eared Owl

The Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) is a medium-sized owl species occurring year-round throughout most of southern Canada and of northern and western United States. They closely resemble the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) with their buff brown plumage, rusty facial disks, black beak, and obvious eartuffs, but the Long-eared Owl is slimmer, weighing between 220 and 435 g, has longer eartuffs that are closer together on the head, and lacks the white chin and neck [6].


1.         Harrison CJO: Bird families of the world. Oxford, England: Elsevier-Phaidon; 1978.

2.         Parmelee DF: Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; 1992.

3.         Houston CS, Smith DG, Rohner C: Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; 1998.

4.         Bull EL, Duncan JR: Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; 1993.

5.         Poulin R, Todd LD, Haug EA, Millsap BA, Martell MS: Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; 2011.

6.         Marks JS, Evans DL, Holt DW: Long-eared Owl (Asio otus). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; 1994.


Distribution maps provided below, unless otherwise stated, were obtained from Birds of North America Online, maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and all pictures provided below were obtained from Encyclopedia of Life
Snowy Owl
Supplier: Wikimedia Commons
Photographer: Bert de Tilly
Great Horned Owl
Supplier: Wikimedia Commons
Photographer: Brendan Lally
Great Gray Owl
© Andy Jones
Supplier: Flickr: EOL Images
Photographer: Andy Jones
Burrowing Owl
Supplier: Wikimedia Commons
Photographer: Dario Sanches
Long-eared Owl
Supplier: Biopix
Location Created: Falsterbo, Sweden