All over the world, owls have captured the imagination of peoples throughout history, from the ancient Greeks to the native tribes of North America such as the Apache, Cree, and Cherokee (among others). Owls first appeared in the fossil record about 60 million years ago, and their ancient origins may well confirm the idea that they represent cosmic wisdom and divine knowledge, as believed by many cultures around the world. Some even argue that an owl is a harbinger of death and destruction for any human that crosses its path, and while that view is still in the air, it’s devastatingly true for any small rodent at the very least.
Owls are primarily nocturnal hunters, (although some hunt during the day), and they have adapted many specializations that allow them to be highly effective hunters. Mainly by feeding on small rodents such as mice, voles, ground squirrels or rabbits, owls can fly silently over large hunting grounds. They use their uniquely shaped eyes to spot prey from miles away and are equipped with specialized hearing that can detect even small disturbances on the forest floor. Here are 10 facts about owls that make them one of the most fascinating birds in the world.
10. Owls are everywhere
Owls exist on almost every continent on Earth, except Antarctica (as well as several other remote oceanic islands). There are about 250 different species of owls scattered around the world, in different sizes and colors. They hunt different types of prey and live in different nests and burrows. Classified as ‘Strigiformes’, owls have been found in the fossil record dating back to just after non-avian dinosaurs (such as T-rex and Triceratops) went extinct, some 66 million years ago. Ogygoptynx, the oldest owl fossil, is said to have lived in present-day Colorado about 61 million years ago.
9. Face Recognition
If you want to impress on your next birdwatching trip, use this simple trick to help identify an owl you might spot. Owls can be classified by applying a basic form of facial recognition. Owls are part of a group of birds known as ‘Strigiformes’ and can be grouped into two distinct groups called ‘families’. These families are known as ‘Tytonidae’ (barn owls) and ‘Strigidae’ (true owls). Strigidae, in which most owls group, have circular faces, while owls belonging to the Tytonidae family, such as barn owls, have heart-shaped faces.
8. Sound of an owl
One of the most iconic and recognizable features of an owl is the ‘scream’. Often used in movies to add that extra touch of creepiness to a horror scene, an owl’s ominous ‘ear owl’ can send shivers down any unsuspecting spine. Yet there are also owls that prefer to do things differently in the real world. Some owls prefer to go the extra mile in the creepiness department and instead produce various hissing sounds. Just ask anyone who’s tripped over a barn owl in the middle of the night, it can be blood-curdling. Others, such as the burrowing owl, can mimic the sound of a snake clattering, producing a sort of rattling noise to repel unwanted visitors.
7. Parliament of Birds (Parliament of Fowls)
Source: Robert Couse-Baker | CC BY 2.0 Generic
Perhaps it’s because of the large piercing eyes, or the mysterious nocturnal nature in which they conduct their business, but owls are considered by many to be a symbol of “wisdom and secret knowledge.” From ancient occult traditions to the adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, the idea of the “wise old owl” has become widely accepted. When a group of “wise old owls” come together, it is officially called a “parliament.”
The term ‘a parliament of owls’ was first coined by the author, CS Lewis, in his classic adventure story: ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’. It was used as a term to describe the meeting of a tribunal of owls who would meet to discuss ‘Narnian’ matters and legislation. The book has sold so many copies worldwide (more than 100 million) that the term has become the most well-known name when it comes to an owl gathering.
6. The largest owl in the world
Source: Softeis | CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
While the great gray owl is commonly referred to as one of the largest owls in the world, according to the Guinness World Records, the largest owl in the world is “the Eurasian Eagle Owl” (Bubo bubo). It has an average length of 66 – 71 cm and weighs between 1.3 and 3.6 kg with a wingspan that can be more than 182 cm wide in some cases. Despite their size, eagle owls are virtually silent when flying and will prey on almost anything that moves. Small rodents such as mice or voles are basically just appetizers, as there are more substantial animals such as foxes and small deer on this huge owl’s menu.
5. The smallest owl in the world
Source: Dominic Sherony | CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic
The smallest owl in the world is known as the cactus owl (Micrathene whitneyi), which is about 12 cm high. Weighing just over 0.1kg, the prickly pear is practically microscopic compared to its Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo) counterpart. Commonly found in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan desert regions of North America, the prickly pear is known for making nests in hollowed-out cacti burrows. Unlike many owls, which primarily prey on small mammals, the plant pit feeds on small moths, beetles, crickets, and other smaller nocturnal insects.
4. Asymmetrical Ears
Source: Virginia State Parks | CC BY 2.0 Generic
Owls have fantastic hearing, largely due to the placement of their ears. They have ‘asymmetrical placement’ meaning their ears are at different heights on the side of their heads. This gives owls the ability to detect sound vibrations at different levels of frequency, dramatically improving their hearing range. This allows them to discern even the smallest disturbances on the ground floor, meaning that to an owl, a small mouse brushing against a dry leaf might sound more like a herd of elephants plunging through the brush. And while that analogy may border on an exaggeration, it’s important to know that an owl’s hearing is one of the most effective tools.
3. A Reversible Toe
A notable feature of owls, similar to most “birds of prey,” is their large claws, called talons, which are located on their feet. Each owl foot features four toes, with razor-sharp claws that are the primary assault weapons used in hunting. These claws are controlled by a unique joint that produces a ‘reversible toes’ effect. Owls are zygodactyl, so their feet are designed with two forward-facing toes and two back-facing toes. Owls are particularly unique in that they can turn one toe back and forth and adjust its placement to aid in prey grabbing, or to create a secure base while perched high in the branches of a tree. In a similar way, the opposing thumb provides important evolutionary benefits to humans and some primates, the owl’s reversible toe is an essential tool for the survival of the species.
2. Owls don’t have eyeballs
One of the most striking features of an owl is its large, round eyes, but in reality, an owl’s eyes aren’t eyeballs at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Primarily designed for low-light use, owls are actually farsighted. An owl’s eyes are forward-facing and, like humans, provide binocular vision, yet their eyes are tubular, specialized to target prey from a great distance. Owl’s eyes are held in the skull by bony structures called Sclerotic Rings, which hold the eyes in place.
1. Owls can turn their heads
Here’s one last tidbit about owls that will make your head spin. As mentioned before, owls have eyes that are lodged in their skulls, so they are limited to a field of view within their head’s range of motion. To counter this evolutionary challenge, owls have thus evolved a unique ability to rotate their heads 270 degrees around their bodies, as well as the ability to look up and down at 90 degrees without moving their shoulders. Speaking of the ultimate surveillance system, owls can literally watch their own backs!