Owlet Moths: A Quick Guide to Their Behavior and Habitat

The Owlet Moth (Mesogona olivata) is a fascinating nocturnal creature that captivates the attention of researchers, nature enthusiasts, and photographers alike. These moths are known for their varied coloration, which can range from gray-brown to red-brown, or even light yellow-brown, with smooth lines and spots adorning their forewings 1. They are usually attracted to lights and sugar baits, making them relatively easy to observe at night when they are most active 1.

Owlet Moths belong to the Noctuidae family, which is quite large and diverse, and includes other subgroups such as dagger, bird-dropping, miller moths, and cutworms 2. Some noctuids display bright reds, oranges, or yellows with black markings, warning predators of their toxicity or unpalatable taste 2. In addition to their captivating appearance and intriguing behavior, these moths play crucial roles in pollination and, in some cases, serve as indicators of biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Owlet Moth Overview

Classification

The Owlet Moth, also known as Mesogona olivata, is an insect belonging to the Noctuidae family of moths. This family is one of the largest in North America, encompassing other members like dagger moths, bird-dropping moths, and more1.

Some notable features of Owlet Moths include:

  • Nocturnal behavior
  • Attraction to lights and sugar baits
  • Colorful patterns, varying from gray-brown to light yellow-brown2

Habitats

Owlet Moths can be found in a wide range of elevations, from 10 feet to 7,087 feet2. They inhabit various environments and are known to adapt to different locations.

Comparison of Owlet Moths and Dagger Moths

Feature Owlet Moth Dagger Moth
Coloration Gray-brown, red-brown, or light yellow-brown2 Bright reds, oranges, or yellows with black markings1
Active Time Nocturnal2 Mostly nocturnal1
Size Varies Varies

Physical Characteristics

Coloration

Owlet moths exhibit color variations depending on their location. They can have gray-brown, red-brown, or light yellow-brown coloration 1.

Forewings

The forewings of owlet moths display a design of smooth lines and spots 1. This design may vary depending on the specific species.

Here’s a brief comparison of adult moths and caterpillars, highlighting their characteristics:

Adult Moth Caterpillar
Coloration Gray-brown, red-brown, or light yellow-brown Depends on species
Wings/Forewings Present Absent
Design/Pattern Smooth lines and spots Depends on species

Some features of owlet moths include:

  • Nocturnal behavior
  • Attracted to lights and sugar baits
  • Can be found in a wide range of elevations

Life Cycle and Metamorphosis

Egg

Owlet moths undergo complete metamorphosis, starting their life cycle as eggs. Female moths typically lay their eggs on the underside of leaves or other surfaces, providing suitable conditions for the larvae to feed upon hatching.

Larvae

Once the eggs hatch, the larval stage begins. Owlet moth larvae, commonly known as caterpillars, have a few key characteristics:

  • Distinctive markings and colors
  • Feed on a variety of plant leaves or other organic materials

During this stage, caterpillars grow and molt multiple times as they prepare for pupation.

Pupa

The third stage of the life cycle is the pupal stage where the caterpillar undergoes a transformation into an adult moth. Inside a protective cocoon, the caterpillar reorganizes its tissues to form the adult moth’s body structure.

Adult Moth

Finally, the adult moth emerges from the pupa. Key features of adult owlet moths include:

  • Nocturnal behavior
  • Diverse size and coloration
  • Some are important pollinators

Adult moths then mate, lay eggs, and complete the life cycle.

Here is a comparison table of the four stages of the owlet moth life cycle:

Stage Key Features
Egg Laid on underside of leaves or other surfaces
Larvae Distinctive markings, feed on plant leaves
Pupa Cocoon, metamorphosis into adult moth
Adult Moth Nocturnal, diverse size and colors, some pollinators

Diet and Feeding Habits

Plant Preferences

The Owlet Moth has a preference for certain plants to feed on. Some examples of their preferred plants are:

  • Oak
  • Hazel
  • Poplar
  • Alder

These plants provide nutrition for the Owlet Moth and contribute to its overall survival.

Nectar Consumption

Owlet Moths also consume nectar from various plants to meet their energy needs. Nectar is a vital source of nutrition that they use alongside their preferred plants.

Plants for Nectar Consumption:

  • Oak: Rich in sugars used for energy
  • Hazel: Provides essential minerals
  • Poplar: Offers carbohydrates for nourishment
  • Alder: Delivers amino acids crucial for growth
Plant Attracts Owlet Moth Nutritional Benefit
Oak Yes Sugars for energy
Hazel Yes Essential minerals
Poplar Yes Carbohydrates
Alder Yes Amino acids for growth

Interactions with Humans

Pests

Owlet moths can be considered pests in some cases, as some species, like armyworms and cutworms, can damage crops and gardens. These species feed on a wide range of plants, causing significant damage.

Examples of crops that are vulnerable to these pests include:

  • corn
  • wheat
  • soybean

Role in Ecosystem

Despite their status as pests in some instances, Owlet moths also have a crucial role in ecosystems. They serve as pollinators, particularly in nocturnal environments, where they help plants reproduce by transferring pollen between flowers. Additionally, Owlet moths are a food source for several predators, such as birds and bats.

Comparison Table: Armyworms and Cutworms

Armyworms Cutworms
Appearance Green or brown Grayish-brown with dark markings
Damage caused Defoliate plants Cut off stems near the ground
Active period Day and night Mostly night-time

Their roles in the ecosystem are:

  • Pollination
  • Food source for predators

While Owlet moths can be pests in some cases, it’s essential to remember their positive contributions to the ecosystem. They can help maintain a balanced ecosystem by both pollinating plants and serving as a food source for various predators.

Identification and Taxonomy

Synonyms

  • Common name: Owlet Moth
  • Genus: Mesogona
  • Family: Noctuidae

Taxonomic Changes

  • Superfamily: Noctuoidea
  • Subfamily: changes over time

The Owlet Moth (Mesogona olivata) is a nocturnal moth species belonging to the family Noctuidae. They are commonly found in Eastern North America1. Their distribution ranges from low elevations of 10 feet up to 7,087 feet2. Owlet moths have variable coloration depending on their location. Their forewings can be gray-brown, red-brown, or light yellow-brown, with a design of smooth lines and spots3.

Let’s take a closer look at the taxonomic classification of the Owlet Moth:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Subphylum: Hexapoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Lepidoptera
  • Superfamily: Noctuoidea
  • Family: Noctuidae
  • Genus: Mesogona

This moth species, as with other cutworm moths in the Noctuoidea superfamily, undergoes evolutionary taxonomic changes over time.

Feature Owlet Moth
Classification Family Noctuidae, Superfamily Noctuoidea
Common Name Owlet Moth
Distribution Eastern North America
Genus Mesogona
Adult Moth Coloration Variable: gray-brown, red-brown, or light yellow-brown
Caterpillar Species Similar to other Noctuid caterpillars
Identification Forewings with smooth lines and spots

Some examples of the Owlet Moth’s features include:

  • Nocturnal
  • Attracted to lights and sugar baits
  • Variable color patterns depending on location

For better identification, it is helpful to compare the Owlet Moth with other similar moth species. Basic identification of moths vs. butterflies can be done by examining the antennae4. Moth antennae are typically feathery or saw-edged, while butterfly antennae have a club-shaped end.

Please remember to consult print and internet references for further information on the Owlet Moth, its identification, and any recent taxonomy changes.

Footnotes

  1. Noctuid Moths 2 3 4 5 6
  2. Owlet Moth (Mesogona olivata) – US Forest Service 2 3 4 5
  3. https://www.loc.gov/everyday-mysteries/zoology/item/how-can-you-tell-the-difference-between-a-butterfly-and-a-moth/
  4. http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/Plates.shtml

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – The Herald from the UK

Subject: What’s this moth?
Location: Berkshire, UK
January 8, 2014 4:29 am
A friend found this in his greenhouse (in Berkshire, UK) just before Christmas. If not for the striped legs, I’d have been thinking pine-tree lappet or similar. Can anyone help?
Signature: Clive Richards

The Herald
The Herald

Our Autoreply
Thank you for submitting your identification request.
Please understand that we have a very small staff that does this as a labor of love. We cannot answer all submissions (not by a long shot). But we’ll do the best we can!

Identified by Helen Argent on the UK Moth site: The Herald (Scoliopteryx libatrix)
Many thanks, anyway
Clive Richards

Hi Clive,
Thanks for providing us with this identification of The Herald.  Your request was on our back burner.  According to UK Moths:  “Quite a spectacular species, this colourful moth overwinters as an adult, and as a result, can be one of the last species to be seen in one year, and one of the first in the next. It is also sometimes found hibernating inside barns and outbuildings.  The adults are attracted to both light and sugar, and the species is fairly common and well distributed over much of Britain, though it is less common in Scotland.  The larvae feed on willow (Salix) and poplar (Populus).” 

Letter 2 – Spanish Moth from Florida

Subject:  Moth from south fl
Geographic location of the bug:  Found on a window in S Florida
Date: 05/10/2019
Time: 01:17 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Could not identify my moth in my Audubon Field Guide, thought you might know .
How you want your letter signed:  Laura Rice

Spanish Moth

Dear Laura,
We remember having to identify this pretty little moth in the past, and that it took us considerable time because we thought we were trying to identify a Tiger Moth in the subfamily Arctiinae.  We did remember that it was actually an Owlet Moth, and when we began to attempt an identification, we quickly found the Spanish Moth,
Xanthopastis timais, on Featured Creatures where it states that it is:  “is unmistakable for any other moth in Florida.”  The site also states:  “The Spanish moth, originally described from Surinam, is found throughout lowland areas of South and Central America, and in the Caribbean. The Spanish moth occurs throughout all lowland Neotropical regions of the Caribbean, and as far south as northern Argentina. In North America, the species has a southeastern distribution, from the Carolinas to Texas, but strays northward along the Atlantic Coast as far as coastal New York, and inland as far north as Kentucky and Arkansas. It occurs in all of Florida.”

Letter 3 – The Hebrew

hi! my boyfriend took a picture of this moth that he found in his house in independence country, arkansas. any idea what it is??
thanks!
erika

Hi Erika,
This moth is known as The Hebrew, Polygrammate hebraeicum. It is found in moist woods. The caterpillar eats sourgum leaves and adults fly in July and August. It was named by Hubner who thought the curving black lines and dots reminded him of a Hebrew letter.

Letter 4 – The Hebrew

Subject: The Hebrew
Location: Troy, VA
August 3, 2016 9:19 am
I thought you might like this picture of what I believe to be a Hebrew moth. It’s not quite as sharp an image as I would like, but you can still see the lovely markings quite clearly. I only got one photo before she flew off.
Signature: Grace Pedalino

The Hebrew
The Hebrew

Dear Grace,
Your image of The Hebrew moth,
Polygrammate hebraeicum, is a marvelous addition to our archive as we only have one rather blurry image of The Hebrew in our archives that was submitted in 2005.  According to BugGuide:  “Both common name ‘The Hebrew’ and specific epithet hebraeicum likely refer to resemblance of the pattern to Hebrew characters”  According to the Butterflies and Moths of North America:  “Caterpillar Hosts: Black gum trees.”

Letter 5 – Tufted Bird Dropping Moth

Subject: Moth in Northeastern NJ
Location: Verona, NJ
June 16, 2014 12:03 pm
Hello … Can you identify this lovely moth? Can’t find him in my field guides.
Thanks so much!
Have a lovely vacation…
Signature: Anne

Tufted Bird Dropping Moth
Tufted Bird Dropping Moth

Hi Anne,
We did have a lovely time on holiday, but we know we will never be able to make a dent in the countless submissions that arrived in our absence.  Fortuitously, we selected your request from our backlog, and we have been obsessed with identifying this lovely moth.  We figured it was in the superfamily Noctuoidae, and we were correct.  We found
Cerma cerintha, the Tufted Bird Dropping Moth, on the Moth Photographers Group website, and we crosschecked that on BugGuide where we learned:  “larvae feed on leaves of plants in the rose family (Rosaceae) such as apple, cherry, hawthorn, peach, pear, plum, rose.”

Tufted Bird Dropping Moth
Tufted Bird Dropping Moth

Welcome back…  I hope you can make a dent in the backlog…  yikes!
Wonderful!  Thank you so much…  I do have an apple tree, and roses in my yard, and the street trees on my block are cherry…
Be well  🙂

Letter 6 – Unknown Moth

Snoutmoth found! Bleptina caradrinalis
Location: Orange County
May 8, 2012 1:59 am
Hey bugman,
A little while back I sent a query about a funny little snouty-moth that snuck into my house (meanwhile, all the moths I’ve been trying to attract with a blacklight gleefully ignore it). Well, after a lot of searching, I think I’ve pegged him as a Bent-Winged Owlet. The pictures on the bug guide seem lighter than him, but he has the orange markings and the ribbony pattern on his wings. In celebration, I thought I’d send you the biggest picture I had of him. Unfortunately it’s a terrible picture, and he’s surrounded by sugar crumbles because that was the only jar we could catch him in on short notice. He did not seem to enjoy roasted cinnamon almonds as much as we do, sad to say.
Signature: Hopefully victorious

What’s That Moth???

Dear Hopefully victorious,
Alas, we can neither confirm nor refute your identification, however we are posting your letter and photo and perhaps one of our more knowledgeable readers will be able to provide some insight.  We are linking to the BugGuide page for the Bent Winged Owlet which does look very similar to your moth.

Letter 7 – Unknown Moth from Florida

Winged bug in South Florida
Location: South Florida
August 24, 2011 2:46 pm
What the heck is it?
Signature: Bugcurious in bipedaland

Unidentified Moth

Dear Bugcurious,
We believe this is a Moth, but we don’t recognize it and we are not going to try to research it now because we are tired and ready for bed, and tomorrow is a very difficult day.  Perhaps our readership will be able to provide an identity before we can.


I had a biologist friend looking into it for me too. He may have nailed it down. Here’s his best guess: http://bugguide.net/node/view/558205 (Spragueia leo moth). If your someone in your community comes with other ideas I’d love to know.
Thanks!

Thanks for saving us a bit of time this morning by providing us with an identification.  BugGuide has numerous photos of this pretty little Owlet Moth.

Authors

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  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

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  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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