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The difference between hibou and chouette – how to say “owl” in French

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hibou or chouette


Hibou vs chouette

Ever thought about picking up Harry Potter in French? If you have (and actually went through with the plan), you have come across the word chouette in French, which, according to the dictionary, means “owl”. Which is neat, but then what about the word hibou? Isn’t that the French equivalent of “owl”?

Does this mean that these two words are synonyms?

No, it doesn’t. Although the words hibou and chouette both signify “owl”, they are not interchangeable. To find out the difference between the two, take a look at the following pictures:

Apart from the fact that I would feel a great deal more comfortable with approaching the first bird, there’s one major difference between the two – the fluffy ears, or the ear tufts.
If your particular owl has these cool accessories, you’ll have to go with the word hibou. If its feathers are all sticking neatly to its head, chouette is going to be your choice.

That’s really handy, because even though they look so much alike and are in the same taxonomic family (called Strigidae), choeuettes and hibous belong to different species. Thanks to the ear tufts adorning the head of hibous, you won’t have to lay your hand on a taxonomy textbook to choose the right word. Find out more about the differences here.

That being said, some hibous have ear tufts that are so tiny that you will inevitably miss them. Remember my reference to Harry Potter? Snowy owls (le harfang or la chouette des neiges in French) are in fact hibous, if you want to be really precise.

le (!) hibou, les hiboux (aspirated h!) = owl with ear tufts

la chouette = owl without ear tufts

aigrettes (f pl) = feathers/ head-plumes

Types of owl in French

hibou moyen-duc = long-eared owl

le grand-duc = eagle owl

hibou des marais = short-eared owl

la chouette des neiges / le harfang (aspirated H) = snowy owl

chouette tachetée = spotted owl

chouette mouchetée = mottled owl

Find more owl species living in France here.

Other meanings of chouette in French

Chouette is a homonym, meaning that more than one meaning is attached to this particular word form. (We’ve talked briefly about homonyms in our article on hocher, a fairly perplexing French word.)

Chouette can be used as an adjective, too, and in this case it doesn’t have anything to do with owls – it means “neat”. You can use it to refer to both objects and situations.

It’s considered to be a familiar word, though, so don’t sprinkle it all over your college/ job application letter. Although I’d understand it if you wanted to.

chouette (adj)neat, nice, great (fam.)

Ton vélo est chouette. = Your bike is neat.

C’est chouette d’être de retour. = It’s nice to be back.

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