What a smart-looking tyke, and one who’s covering a lot of ground with such a relatively simple design. Think of something tied thematically to an owl, and she’s got you covered.
Big, round eyes? Check, and outlined like nerdy spectacles for “wisdom” points.
Nocturnal? Look at how her eyebrows are shaped like the hands of a clock, and her red eyes evoke cartoony night-vision lenses.
A little eerie? She’s perched oddly on one leg at all times and constantly shown tilting from side to side.
They can rotate their head around? Do you one better – Hoothoot is nothing but a head.
Everybody’s big on another owl who will show up way down the line, but I’ll always love Hoothoot for having such a clever, quintessentially owl-y design. Plus, she’s got such a fun onomatopoeia of a name! Hoothoot is just fun to say out loud.
Noctowl is admittedly one of those “it’s an animal, but exaggerated” designs, which isn’t an inspiring start. No interesting elemental typing, and no stand-out features aside from those very flamboyant eyebrows. Even her Pokédex entries read as “yup, sure is an owl”. Nonetheless, she does still make for an excellent progression from Hoothoot.
Everything about Noctowl is a refinement of the already-great Hoothoot. She has the same face on a perfectly-round head, but those clock-hand brows have evolved into a massive feathery crest that smacks of the great horned owl. The red eyes are still present, but sunken in and tighter for better predatory vision. Even her duller feet, yellowed talons, and darker coat all suggest greater age and weathering – age being another stereotypical hallmark of owls.
She’s not as charming as the wonderfully vivid ball of feathers that is Hoothoot, but she makes for a solid evolution into something more immediately-recognizable. Good stuff.
Unfortunately, Noctowl is a combined Normal and Flying-type Pokémon, and that’s an awfully crowded club to be in. Doubly unfortunately, Noctowl doesn’t do a whole lot to stand out within that field apart from being perhaps a bit bulkier than most birds. That does put her in a nice position to help starting players capture other Pokémon, though, considering she learns status-inducing moves like Hypnosis early and can pick up other tools like the healing Roost, trapping Mean Look, and exact-damage-dealing Night Shade. Not a super-inspiring monster, but she can make for a fun Swiss army knife.
On top of both being adorable and elegantly-designed, Hoothoot is the stated favorite Pokémon of the series’ lead illustrator Ken Sugimori, taking inspiration from a childhood pet bird with a penchant for standing on one leg. The rest of Hoothoot clearly has a lot of thought put into him as a presumed result, including a unique animation when she enters battle in Gold & Silver (which isn’t used, but its existence belies the favoritism there).
Hoothoot’s tipping back and forth off one foot – doubled with her clock-hand eyebrows – gives her a “time” theme that doesn’t quite carry over into Noctowl. She’s got a knack for rhythm that and a keen biological clock, starting its owl-song at the same time each day.
That keen circadian rhythm stems from a sort of internal organ particular to Hoothoot biology that helps her detect the earth’s rotation. This feels just a bit fanciful until you recall that real birds have proteins in their eyes that react to magnetism specifically for flight orientation. While it seems a bit overkill to keep exact track of time when the position of the sun and moon will generally do you, the idea of twisting a bird’s internal compass into an internal clock is such an elegant little bit of fantasy zoology that slots nicely into the mythology that we already have around owls.
In another installment of “variants that only the anime gives us”, as Noctowl progress into old age, they have the potential to grow wisened, feathery beards. I like the look of a bearded Noctowl; it helps make the neck look thicker (approaching the look of a real-life owl), and it gives them a sagely air that feels appropriate for the animal. Sure, a beard on a bird makes no diddly-darn sense. But it’s a neat enough idea to give a pass anyway, I reckon.
Much like Furret, Noctowl is bigger than you might expect – over five feet, which is a lot for a bird. It’s entirely possible that they’re counting wingspan here rather than talon-to-crest, which would put it only 20% bigger than certain real-life owls, but as previously acknowledged, the sense of scale in Pokémon isn’t exactly clear or even consistent.
All of Noctowl’s international names are some pun on “night owl”, but I think the French name wins yet again for “cool points”. Noarfang sounds somewhere between a elder dragon’s name and a Castlevania monster; perhaps a bit overzealous for this particular creature of the night, but fun nonetheless.
Not necessarily Noctowl-specific, but a quick reminder of how crazy owl heads are. When people hear that an owl can swivel their heads up to 270 degrees, the presumption is that this is to look behind them. While this is also true, the kicker is that owls will tilt their head as if in thought, and then continuing to tilt until their heads are upside-down. Noctowl does this purely when concentrating on something, but this always struck me as an over-adaptation on owls’ part to tracking prey without moving. I kind of like the interpretation that Noctowl has developed this as a deliberate weird-out tactic to drive other Pokémon off; why else would you need to crane your neck so far as to see the floor as the ceiling?
Hoothoot and Noctowl are tragic victims of overcrowding. I personally love these two, and I’d be disappointed to see them go; on the other hand, Normal/Flying monsters are dead common, and as noted, there are others that might cover its animal-specific niche. Sword & Shield show us that we’re not over these two yet, though, so officially they’re in Reserve, even if I could see them being sadly Retired over time as the series has to cut out redundant creature designs.
Any and all appreciation for Hoothoot and Noctowl is welcome in the comments!