November 4, 2019
The Wise Old Owl
Fact Versus Fiction
Throughout history, humans have had cultural and mythical connections to owls. It has colored attitudes and treatment of these animals, and in some areas, affected their survival in the ecosystems of the world. The truth about these critters, however, is just as fascinating as the myths that surround them.
For the ancient Romans and some other European cultures, the owl represented wisdom and protection from evil spirits. In Japan, they are thought to ward off famine and in central Asia, owl feathers are thought to protect children and livestock from evil. Indigenous tribes in North America vary in their beliefs. Some view owls as positive totems while others share in the belief of owls as bad luck and thieves of newly departed spirits. Many traditions are rooted in the physical characteristics and habits of these animals.
Most owls are nocturnal and have great ability to see in very low light. Their eyes are very large – if humans had eyes of similar proportions, they would be the size of grapefruits. The one drawback to such huge eyes is that there is no room in the skull for them to move, so bony plates surround them. That’s why an owl has to turn its head so far – it cannot move its eyes!
The owl’s head swiveling is also unnerving to some. They have twice as many bones in their neck as humans which enables them to turn their head about 270° horizontally. They can also tilt their head up turn it over to the side. They are simply exhibiting the characteristics of a good hunter. Sharp eyes and quick reactions are necessary for catching prey.
Eastern Screech Owl
Like most predators, owls have front-facing eyes for spotting prey. Placement of their large eyes and beak, as well as the round, flat facial disk of feathers (used like a satellite dish for catching sound) gives the owl a rounded-face look very similar to a human’s. It is this appearance that is thought to have been the origin of the “wise old owl” myth. Reality, however, shows that owls do not learn many skills from their parents and rely heavily on in-born instinct. If we use human criteria to judge intelligence, a crow or raven would be considered much more intelligent than an owl.
If owl intelligence may be debatable, their skill as hunters is not. Whether hunting day or night, owls rely on their hearing as much as their eyesight. Owls can hear a mouse rustling in the leaves up to a half a mile away. Their ears are on the side of their head but are hidden behind their facial disk feathers. Owl ears do have one odd characteristic, though. They are offset, one is up high on the skull and the other is down low. This allows them to triangulate sound and tell what height the noise is coming from as well as direction.
Most owls are also completely silent flyers. Their feathers are soft and pliable unlike most other flighted birds that have stiff feathers. They also have a comb-like fringe on the leading edge of their flight feathers, which allows air to break up as it passes over the wings, preventing any whistling or flapping noise. This allows owls to maneuver quietly through the trees and approach their prey stealthily.
Today, all raptors are state and federally protected due to their importance in ecosystems. They help keep rodents, other mammals, snakes, and even some insect populations under control. Learn more about native owl species at an Audubon program this winter.
Great Horned Owl