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What are the horns found on owls? - How to differentiate unicorns from plumicorns

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

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Long-eared Owl
Long-eared Owl aka Long-plumicorned Owl (Not a unicorn)

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What do you call the feathers on an owl's head?

I learned recently that there is a word for the ear-like tufts of feathers some birds have (e.g. the Great Horned Owl). Most birdwatchers are familiar with the varieties of owls with feather tufts protruding from the top of an owl's head. And while the less-informed might think these feathers are the ears of an owl, their purpose is not related to an owl's auditory abilities. In fact, their true function is not well understood. So, what are these magnificent head ornaments? Plumicorns.


The term used, "plumicorn," sounded like complete nonsense, and of course, I was not buying it at all. Unfortunately for my skeptical mind, the term is real, and its usage is quite interesting.

 

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What is a plumicorn?

The word plumicorn comes from the Latin words pluma (feather) and cornu (horn). After reading more about plumicorns, I extracted that their exact purpose is still unknown. However, one popular theory is that these feathers make the bird seem more aggressive and intimidating to predators or attackers. Another plausible theory speculates that they break up their silhouettes, giving a bird better camouflage. This would make sense for non-cavity nesters and roosters. However, the screech-owls are quite well-known for their love of safe holes.


Plumicorns are not just unique to owls. There are other species of birds that have these feather tufts as well, including Horned Larks, Tufted Puffins, and Rockhopper Penguins. There are less obvious versions of these feather decorations, but owls are the typical birds pointed to in the plumicorn discussion.


With your newfound knowledge, it is time to use a practical application. As such, I have prepared a handy guide to help you tell the difference between 'plumicorns' and 'unicorns:'

 

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Are owl horns owl ears?

No, the "horns" found on top of any species of owl's head are not its ears. As found throughout this article, the "horns" on an owl's head are feathers. The ears of an owl are found to the sides and behind the eyes of an owl. In fact, the facial disks of an owl can be lifted to expose the ear opening, as seen below in this photo of a Northern Saw-whet Owl.


In many owl species, the ear canals and/or ear openings are asymmetrical, allowing for a more precise location of prey species during hunts.


What does an owl ear look like?

Image of an owl ear
The ear opening of the Northern Saw-whet Owl is found behind the eyes.

This is what an owl ear looks like. Next question?


Unicorn or Plumicorn?

A graphic showing that owls do not have horns
Unicorn vs Plumicorn - Learn how to differentiate the difference between a horn and a feather

In conclusion, I vote that we change the name of the Great Horned Owl to Great Plumicorned Owl for better accuracy (and because it sounds really neat). Though, my bet is that the outrage from renaming birds would flow like the wine from Dionysus's goblet.


Final Note: Here's to Plumicorned Larks, Great Plumicorned Owls, and Plumicorned Grebes! To be fair, we are rebels in the bird-naming world.


 

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