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A Word or Two about the Enigmatic Owl

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

The Enigmatic Owl. Photo Credit: Unsplash/Agto Nugroho

Are you ready for a short quiz?

1. Which bird can swivel its head 270 degrees? (A) Peacock (B) Hummingbird (C) Owl

2. Which bird cannot move its eyes? (A) Owl (B) Crow (C) Raven

3. Which group of birds is called a “Parliament”? (A) Owl (B) Parrots (C) Swan

4. Which bird has been called a harbinger of death for centuries? (A) Turkey (B) Swallow (C) Owl

If you had replied “Owl” to all the questions, you were correct! Congratulations!

Indeed, owls are mysterious, secretive, cryptic, and with a mystique like no other bird. For centuries, owls, along with crows, ravens, and vultures have been defamed by humans due to their own superstitions, inner fear, and lack of knowledge. The reasons behind the superstitions and fear is due to some of the unique characteristics that owls possess - owls have huge eyes, can turn their heads almost all around, are most active during the night, and their nightly calls can sometimes be haunting.

Some Amazing Characteristics of Owls

Owls can indeed swivel their heads 270 degrees to look around because they cannot move their eyes! This is because they don’t have eyeballs like we humans do. They have eye tubes or cylinders that are fixed in their sockets and are immovable. If owls had not developed the astonishing morphological attributes of swiveling their necks, they would have had to turn their entire body to look around them! But why have such a complicated neck structure when they could simply have rotatable eyeballs? Good question! The reason for this elaborate scheme is that if the owls had to move their whole body because their eyes could not be rotated, that movement, however subtle, would give them away!

Owl Head Turn
Can you turn your head this way? Burrowing Owl. Photo Credit:

Owls can turn their head around 270º because of special neck bone mechanism and extremely flexible arteries which will not impede blood flow when the head is rotated in any angle. Photo Credit: media-npr-org (Johns Hopkins National Science Foundation)

Predators, like owls, mainly hunt at night. Night vision requires large corneas that allow for light to be collected effectively even in low ambient light. But Owls have small skulls, so their big eyes cannot expand. Instead, they developed into deep rod shape. Some deep-sea fish like the anglerfish also have rod-shaped eyes because light does not penetrate at the depth in which they live. Owl eyes gives them binocular depth vision as well. New research suggests that there's something special in the way the DNA molecules of owl’s eyes are packaged which give them a powerful visual advantage in the dark.

Owl in the Night
Owl in the Night. Photo Credit: Unsplash/Dmitrii Zhodzishskii

Owls are zygodactyl, which means that their feet have two forward-facing toes and two backward-facing toes. Unlike most other zygodactyl birds, however, owls can pivot one of their back toes forward to help them grip and walk. Most owls swallow their prey whole skin, bones, and feathers. If the prey is too big, then the owls will tear the carcass into manageable pieces and swallow them. Inside their gullet, all the undigestible materials such as bones and hair are turned into a pellet and excreted.

Finally, believe it or not, owls have three eyelids. One for blinking, one for sleeping, and the third for keeping their eye tubes clean! Is that spooky or what?

The Many Different Species of Owls in the World

There are about 250 species of owls in the world. They live on every continent except the icy Antarctica. Many owl species have asymmetrical ears. When located at different heights on the owl’s head, their ears can pinpoint the location of sounds from multiple directions. Owls also hunt other owls. Great Horned Owls are the top predator of the smaller Barred Owl. The tiniest owl in the world is the Elf Owl, which is less than 6 inches (15.24 cms) tall and weighs about 1 ½ ounces (42.5 gms). The largest North American owl is the Great Gray Owl, which is up to 32 inches (61 cms) tall. It weighs about 2.5 lbs (1.1 Kgs).

Great Horned Owl
The Great Horned Owl. Photo Credit: Unsplash/James Lee

Fun Fact: Owls were patron birds of Goddess Athena in ancient Greece. They are found in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and in 30,000-year-old cave paintings in France. Falconers have used owls since the Middle Ages, although not as commonly as other birds.

Owls in Egypt
In ancient Egypt, Owls did not have any prominent status but were revered and respected. They were immortalized through art and, mummification and sculpture. Photo Credit: Unsplash/

Fortunately, over last few decades our knowledge of owls and the other birds we spoke about have improved. We can't help by admire them. In many countries they are protected and in the USA, owls cannot be kept as pets.

Did You Know?

In the English language there is only the name “Owl” for both the male and female of the species. However, when there is need to specify the gender, we can say “hen owl” or “owl hen” for female owls. Interesting, right?


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