What the english translation of the french bird names "hibou" and "chouette"

The title says it all. Responding to another, thread, I had some doubts about the correct translation of the word “chouette”, and thought that maybe I was mistaking it with “hibou”. But when I checked my dictionnary, it gave the same translation “owl” for both birds, though they’re very different in appearance. So, ho do you tell them apart in english?
For non french-speakers, a couple pictures :
This night bird is a “hibou”.
and this one a “chouette”.

The “hibou” facial feathers form kind of pointed “hears” on each side of the head, while the facial feathers of the “chouette” form a kind of white flat and round “mask”.

“hibou” is a Great Horned Owl.

I think “chouette” is called a Barn Owl.

Oops, forgot to log in. Sorry Phatlewt (the post above was me).

The chouette looks like a barn owl.

Not sure about the other.

Odd. I’ve always used hibou as a generic word for owl

Thanks for the answers.
Now I’ve another question : are there some significant differences between the two birds, from a biological point of view that would justify the use of two different names, or is it a purely arbitrary distinction? I always assumed they belonged to two clearly different species, simply on the basis of them having different names in french. But now I’m thinking that maybe there’s as much difference between two species of “chouette” than between a “chouette” and a “hibou”.

Yes, biologically, they are not only two different species, they two types are in different genus. There are many types of barn owl but they are all in genus Tyto. The Great Horned owl (along with a number of owl species called Eagle Owls) are in genus Bubo.

Speaking culturally, the two types have very different “faces” and “expressions” (with the Great Horned Owl looking rather imperious and the barn owl more meek and kind). This is the kind of thing humans remark on and remember in other animals, giving rise to the linguistic distinction.

I think French is making a distinction here that we wouldn’t make in English. In English, owls is owls. That notwithstanding, I understand from the dictionary that chouette is a more particular word than hibou, covering only owls of the family Strigidae. So to me, that would make a chouette a type of hibou. Your kilométrage may vary.

This question illustrates one of the differences in the way the English and French languages operate. In French, the tendancy is to have much more specific nouns, unique to the thing being named. In English, the tendency is to have more general nouns, with distinctions being indicated by adjectives.

Here’s another example: in English, we refer to the Ottawa River and St. Lawrence River, but in French they’re la Rivière Outaouais and la Fleuve St-Laurent. French makes a distinction that we don’t make in English: “fleuve” is a stream that flows into the sea, while “rivière” is a stream that flows into some other body of water, such as a lake, or another river, or into a “fleuve”. If we had to indicate that distinction in English, we’d use adjectives: the Ottawa is a tributary river of the St. Lawrence, which is a maritime river.

I always understood the words as refering to two different birds, like say “eagle” and “falcon”, not as one being a sub-category of another

Following your post, I searched in a (french) dictionnary to find out the exact definitions , and it appears that “hibou” refers to the genus (genuses???) : Asio, Bubo and Hotus while “chouette” refers to the genus “Tyto” in common parlance but for an ornithologist is a generic name for all “Strigidae”.
So, does the common distinction make any particular sense? Is there more difference between a bird vrom the “Tyto” genus (chouette) and a bird from the “Bubo” genus (hibou) than between for instance a “Bubo” and an “Asio” (both hibou)?
I understand the idea that distinctive appearance have more weight for common names of animals than classification, but now, I’m curious.
Besides I’m also wondering if the different names given to various prey birds (be it in french or in english) are equally arbitrary from the point of view of an ornithologist (say, the difference between a falcon, a hawk, a buzzard…).

Just to add that a distinction is made between the Bubo, Asio and Hotus by calling them the french equivalent of “great duke” “medium duke” and “little duke”, but I wouldn’t know if these names originated in the usual language or were created by ornithologists.

Although that does resemble the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) of North America, it is actually the closely related Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo)).

That is the Barn Owl Tyto alba, which occurs in both Europe and the Americas.

French makes many more distinctions between various kinds of owls that English does. The official list of French names in the American Ornithologist’s Union checklist includes the following (I am not going to attempt to include the proper accents):

Effraie de clochers = Barn Owl (other members of this family being collectively known as effraies).

Grand-duc d’Amerique = Great Horned Owl. Several other “eared” owls are called duc; depending on size they may be Grand-ducs, ducs, or petit-ducs.

Long-eared, Short-eared, and related owls are called hibou. Barred Owls and relatives are called chouette.

Various other kinds of owls are called harfang (Snowy Owl), *cheveche, chevechette, *and nyctale.

Note that these are “official” common names, and the names as actually used by the general public are apt to vary regionally.

Wait…I think might have gotten it wrong. Is the “genus” “above” or “below” the familly? I mean, does a genus belongs to a “family” or a “family” to a “genus”?
A link given above places the family above the genus, but ** Sal Ammoniac ** comment about hibou refering only to the Strigidae seems to imply otherwise…

I’ve already noticed the lack of word for “fleuve” in english (and by the way also the lack od distinction between a “lac” and an “etang”, while we’re talking about water), but can you make a general rule of it? Not to derail my own thread, but generally, it’s the reverse argument that I read here (english has a largest vocabulary and all that…). Though I don’t buy in the latter argument, I’m not convinced the former is true, either…

The problem here is the difference between what a specialist might call these birds, and what a layperson would call them. In lay language, the English word used would be “owl” for both chouette and hibou. And this would be correct, more correct than calling a falcon an eagle. That said, people are pretty ignorant about the names of things – calling a falcon an eagle would be the least of their crimes. It’s unbelievably common, for example, for people to call wasps “bees.” I imagine that urbanized French people have the same problem, and that plenty of them would call a chouette a hibou.

But the more specialized terms – Bubo, Strigidae, Tyto, et al. – are only used by scientists or dedicated birders. I’ll leave the classification aspect for them to chew over, and express as pellets.

To address this directly, according to the AOU list Asio is hibou, Bubo is grand-duc, Otus is petit-duc, and Tyto is effraie. Chouette is used for the genera Ciccaba, Strix, and Surnia. But these are North American French, and popular usage in France itself may vary.

Tyto belongs to a separate family (Tytonidae). However, even within the other family of owls (Strigidae) many genera have their own names, while some members of different genera use the same name. As is frequent with common names, there is no consistency.

Falcons belong to a distinctive family, the Falconidae, which also includes caracaras. The other family of diurnal raptors is the Accipitridae, which includes hawks, eagles, kites, harriers, Old World vultures, and others. None of the latter names have any specific scientific meaning, but can refer to various forms which may not be that closely related.

“Buzzard” properly refers to hawks of the genus Buteo, such as the Red-tailed Hawk. However, in North America this name was applied by early colonists to the Turkey Vulture (which belongs to the New World Vultures, which, as it turns out, are not related to the Old World Vultures, but are actually a kind of stork). This usage is probably now too firmly ingrained to attempt to change the names of the New World Buteos to “buzzards.”

Sometimes common names have some definite relationship to scientific categories, but more often than not they don’t.

I’m not sure of it in this particular case, because the “hibou” and “chouette” are quite well separated in popular representation, including for instance in children books.
That’s why I wondered about this at the first place, because I was mentionning a custom of crucifying “chouettes” on barn’s doors while there has never been such a custom for “hiboux”. “Chouettes” are associated with evil and are supposed to announce death when they howl or fly over. While “hiboux” generally have positive connotations, in particular wisdom (for instance, coming back to children books, a hibou is likely to be an old teacher or somesuch). I remember a clear dislike of “chouettes” amongst my peers when I was a kid (I remember in particular a day when the teacher brought a stuffed “chouette” in the classroom).
Not to say that the fact this distinction is AFAICT quite wisepread would man that french people don’t commonly mistake various animals for other ones, like in your bee/wasp example. Or maybe, since precisely I’ve been a rural kid, I overestimate my more urbanite fellow frenchmen knowledge about animals.
Now , I get yet another somehow related question (due to the hibou/wisdom thing). Could one tell what specie (or genus, or whatever) the bird associated with Athena belonged to? For instance, it’s depicted here on the greek 1 € coin. Or is it impossible to know/ to tell?

Logically, it should be a Chevêche d’ Athéna, but Colibri might have a better answer.

By the way, your detail on the popular distinction between *chouettes *and *hiboux * is fascinating, and unknown to me. And I suspect you’re right that there’s a distinction between rural and urban on this one.

I would never have suspected that eagles or hawks were more closely related to vultures than to falcons, due to their appearance.

“Buzzard” properly refers to hawks of the genus Buteo, such as the Red-tailed Hawk. However, in North America this name was applied by early colonists to the Turkey Vulture (which belongs to the New World Vultures, which, as it turns out, are not related to the Old World Vultures, but are actually a kind of stork). This usage is probably now too firmly ingrained to attempt to change the names of the New World Buteos to “buzzards.”


Which answer to another question I didn’t ask but occured to me while writing my post. I was actually refering to the large hawk-looking raptor. But I had to search its english name in the dictionnary, and was quite surprised to find “buzzard” since I indeed always thought the buzzards were vultures.

Thanks for all the answers…

Traditionally the owl of Athena is considered to be the Little Owl, as testified by its scientific name Athene noctua.