Owls: Look, Listen, Mimic, Measure!

After looking at pictures of North American owls, kids learn the differences between five kinds of owl by playfully probing their sounds and size.

There are more than 200 different kinds of owls all over the world, and North America is home to 19 of them. You may catch a glimpse of one along the side of a highway or hear it call from a tree in a city park or your backyard. The Great Horned Owl is found in every state in the United States except Hawaii. The giant of the owl family in the United States is the Great Gray Owl, which stands more than two feet high. The smallest is the Elf Owl—it’s only about five inches tall. Help children understand what makes five types of owls special by guiding them through this sensory activity.

1. Take a close look at Northern Saw-whet Owl (in the image above) with your child or children. Ask them to describe the owl—its color, eyes, and so on—in their own words. Then press the play button beneath its name just below these steps. Ask kids to describe the sound. Does it sound like anything else? Finally, ask each child to try to make the same sound. You take a turn too!

2. Repeat this with each of the owls. Have fun mimicking the sounds! Which ones are favorites/easy/hard/funny/spooky? Take turns making one of the sounds and asking, “Which owl am I?”

3. Now look at the owls again and point out the length of each one from head to toe. (Scientists measure birds by length rather than height, even though some, like owls, stand almost upright.) Starting with the Northern Saw-whet Owl, give kids a yardstick or measuring tape and find its length on it. Then ask kids to find something around your home that is about the same length or height.

4. Repeat this with each of the owls. Hint: Items you might compare the owl's length to include books and toys or stuffed animals. If you have them, measure the owls out with building blocks or bricks. Can you line up all of the objects from smallest to tallest? Which owl does each one represent?

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Length: 7 inches

This owl got its name because people thought it sounded like a saw being sharpened with a stone called a whetstone.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Length: 7 to 10 inches

This owl doesn’t actually screech at all! What does its call sound like to you?

Burrowing Owl

Length: 9 inches

This owl nests in a hole in the ground called a burrow.

Barred Owl

Length: 17 to 24 inches

People say this owl’s “hoot” sounds like it’s saying, “Who cooks for you?”

Great Horned Owl

Length: 18 to 25 inches

This owl doesn’t really have horns. Those are just tufts of feathers on the top of its head.


Audubon Adventures is an environmental science curriculum, developed by professional educators, that presents standards-based science content about birds and their habitats. It includes four-page magazines (in PDF format) just for kids with lively content, illustrations, and photographs on a variety of topics. Explore more activities, games, and lessons about birds and nature at the Audubon Adventures website.

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