Their distribution is worldwide with about 1,450 species found in Europe
Most have drab forewings, although some have brightly coloured hindwings. There are usually few differences between the sexes. The overwhelming majority of noctuids fly at night and are almost invariably strongly attracted to light. Many are also attracted to sugar and nectar-rich flowers.
Some of the family are preyed upon by bats. However, many Noctuidae species have tiny organs in their ears which responds to bat echolocation calls, sending their wing muscles into spasm and causing the moths to dart erratically. This aids the moths in evading the bats.
Several species have larvae (caterpillars) that live in the soil and are agricultural or horticultural pests. These are the "cutworms" that eat the bases of young brassicas and lettuces. They form hard, shiny pupae. Most noctuid larvae feed at night, resting in the soil or in a crevice in its food plant during the day.
The Noctuidae are also remarkable for containing an extraordinary number of species whose caterpillars are able to feed on certain poisonous plants without harm. These foodplants - namely Solanaceae (e.g. Nicotiana) and Fabaceae (e.g. Sophora) - contain chemicals that would kill most insects trying to feed on them.
However recent molecular studies have shown that the family Noctuidae is paraphyletic. The subfamily Plusiinae should be raised to family status. The Noctuidae sensu stricto should be confined to trifines. The quadrifid noctuid subfamilies are paraphyletic (or perhaps polyphyletic) and should be grouped in a clade with the Arctiidae and Lymantriidae. The terms trifid and quadrifid refer to the number of veins from the lower part of the hindwing midcell.