"I heard owls, but I didn't see them."
Translation:J'entendais des hiboux, mais je ne les voyais pas.
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When the direct object comes before the verb and the verb is conjugated with avoir, then the past participle agrees in gender and number with the direct object.
J'ai vu les hiboux <- no agreement with direct object because it is after the verb
Les hiboux que j'ai vus <- there is agreement with the direct object because it is before the verb and conjugated with avoir.
Because when you are referring to what you saw in passé composé you are actually referring to an object, plural owls, therefore it should be in agreement with an object, and therefore to be Je ne les ai vus pas
When you are talking about heard it has to be in agreement only with the subject which is I.
It depends on whether or not the species in question has ear tufts. If it has them, c’est un hibou ; if it doesn’t, c’est une chouette.
How the hell did that happen?
I’m neither an etymologist nor a taxonomist, but I do know that animals (and plants) are often given their vernacular names in a pretty haphazard way, probably (IMHO) because most of them predate the scientific study of taxonomy. A name may refer to a single species (as with the members of the genus Panthera, the big cats—“lion” = P. leo, “tiger” = P. tigris, etc.); but my impression is that more often it will refer to a higher-level taxon, usually a genus (“pig” = Sus) or family (“bear” = Ursidae), but sometimes an even higher level (“owl” = the order(!) Strigiformes). Furthermore, a name may mean different things to different people depending on geographical or some other kind of context, or it may refer to various species across multiple genera, families, classes, etc.
Wiktionary says that hibou is “eventually imitative“—which I take to mean onomatopoeic—and might have a common ancestor with the English word “owl”; chouette is related to English “chough” (pronounced “chuff”), which in turn derives from an Old English word that also refers to a jay, jackdaw or crow. So make of that what you will.
Sometimes the difference is implied in the sentence—the speaker may clearly be talking about something that happened at a certain point in the past (passé composé) or about something that used to happen or that was happening continuously (imparfait). In this case, though, I agree with you: either one should be accepted because the English sentence is ambiguous in that regard.