30 Amazing Facts About Owls
People have been fascinated by owls for thousands of years. We’ve celebrated these reclusive birds of prey in art, literature and mythology dating back to ancient times.
And for good reason. From their intelligent-looking eyes to their independent, nocturnal lives, owls just seem like the stuff of legends. Just spotting one in the wild can be considered a blessing or a bad omen.
But with these birds, the truth often is more interesting than the myths. Here are 30 surprisingly true and fun facts about all kinds of owls. They're a hoot.
Owls can eat fish, bugs and even other owls.
What do owls eat? It depends on the size and species. Small ones, like the elf owl, will snack on moths, crickets, scorpions and spiders. Other owls will plunge into water and eat fish, or snack on rats, rabbits or other small prey.
They're opportunistic hunters, so whatever looks like it'll be the easiest thing to kill is what they hunt. And sometimes they're wrong. Some like the great horned owl, are known to try and eat porcupines, and suffer for it. Some owls will even snatch away small dogs, although that's pretty rare.
Some species of owls are cannibalistic. Snowy owls will hunt short-eared owls, and great horned owls will eat basically any other small owl. Sometimes they'll store their food somewhere like a tree hole to eat later.
Owls can't chew.
Owls either rip their prey to pieces and swallow the bits, or swallow their food whole. Like other birds, they can’t chew with their beaks. Instead, the pieces of food that can’t be digested — fur, bones, talons, etc. — are regurgitated in small pellets.
Interestingly, other birds have a thing called a crop, which is a sac in the throat used for storing food, which can be eaten later. Lacking a crop, everything goes straight to its stomach. The gizzard protects against the indigestible stuff.
Some owls live underground.
Native to the Southwest, burrowing owls are small owls that live in burrows underground during the day and hunt at dusk. They’re renters of their habitats, too. Many take over prairie dog burrows after the animals have moved on.
Wild West cowboys used to call these "howdy owls" since they seemed to bop their heads and say "hello" from their burrows when the cowboys passed by.
A group of owls is called a parliament.
Most owls are solitary creatures, hunting alone and living with their immediate furry family to nest. But every once in a while, a group of owls will converge in what is known as a parliament.
The term originated from C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia." In the book, Lewis adapted Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, "The Parliament of Fowls" to describe a group of owls that meet at night to discuss the goings-on in Narnia.
Barn owl screeches can be the stuff of nightmares.
While you might associate owls with the adorable, even comforting, "hoot, hoot" in the middle of the night, not all owls sound so cute.
When threatened, barn owls make long, drawn-out, and increasingly terrifying hissing sounds. The call is truly the stuff of nightmares. Check it out.
Which begs the question, would owls attack humans?
Owls will attack humans.
Yes, owls will attack humans. But it’s very rare, and only happens when the bird is threatened or confused.
Owls might confuse a pony tail or even something on your head, like a scarf, with prey, and swoop in for the kill. Humans who go hunting at night and use predator calls can also attract the unwanted attention of a confused owl looking for an injured animal.
It’s very rare for this to happen, though. But here’s an example. In 2016, a Canadian man was attacked by a great horned owl — twice — as he was skiing, leaving him with 16 puncture wounds. It’s theorized that either the owl stalked him because it thought his scarf was prey, or because the man was skiing too close to its nesting territory.
Owls can't move their eyes.
Owls don't have eyeballs. They have "eye tubes," which stretch far into the back of their skulls. That kind of anatomy is partly what makes them master predators, but it also means they can’t look around your yard in the same way you can.
To look left or right, owls bob and weave their entire heads. That’s how you get that cute, darting motion we all love so much.
Owls have a special kind of neck.
Owls can't quite do a full 360-degree head swivel, but they can get 270 degrees of movement. Their spines have multiple vertebrae and only one socket pivot (people have two), allowing them a greater range of movement.
But that's not the main reason why these birds can go almost full "Exorcist." Owls have additional arteries that supply nutrients to their system, making up for arteries that are closed off during the turn.
Their arteries can also swell to create excess blood and are made to expand rather than break.
Owls can swim.
It’s not something owls love to do, but apparently, some owls can swim when they need to. One owl was caught swimming in Lake Powell, Utah, using its wings to make a breaststroke-like motion. It seems to be a last-resort kind of thing, though.
"It's not very common because they have no means of defense once they're in the water," ornithologist Matthew Zwiernik told National Geographic. Another expert theorized the owl seen on the video may have fallen from its nest.
Some owls have feathers to help them hear better.
Some owl species, like barn owls and great gray owls, have particularly wide and flat facial features. We, humans, find it endearing, but those pancake faces are working hard.
They have specialized, dark-tipped feathers on their concave faces that help owls hear better, essentially making it easier to spot a mouse from 200 yards away.
The owl can hear sound hitting its left ear before it hits the right, then it turns its head to locate the noise simultaneously. They can detect a left/right time difference of 30 millionths of a second.
Owls hear better than other birds.
Most owls hear better than other day-hunting birds, possibly because they hunt at night. Barn owls will use sound frequencies above 8.5 kHz to locate the movements of the prey in the grass, often pausing mid-flight to reorient themselves with the sound of movement before swooping down to strike.
Some owls, like the great gray owl, can hunt on hearing alone, often finding small mammals scurrying under snow. Barn owls have three times more neurons in their medulla (the part of the brain associated with hearing) than crows.
Owls are extremely farsighted.
Because their eyes are on the front, owls have incredible binocular vision. They can see about 110 degrees around them. They have increased depth perception compared to other birds. Because of that, an owl can spot a tiny field mouse moving quietly at a great distance and grab its prey.
But on the flip side, once the owl has the mouse in its grasp, things get hazy. Up close, an owls line of vision is incredibly blurry and they often can’t make out exactly what they’re holding.
Owls really do have huge eyes.
We attribute wisdom to owls because of their large, wide eyes. It's a feature that's often exaggerated in kitsch home décor or cartoons, but owls really do have large eyes.
In fact, an owl’s eyes can make up to 3 percent of its entire body weight. By comparison, a human’s eyes account for 0.0003 percent of their body weight, according to National Geographic.
Like humans, they have binocular vision, giving them a good sense of depth perception.
The elf owl is really tiny.
Elf owls are grayish-brown owls native to the southwest United States and Mexico. They're the tiniest species of owl, almost as small as a sparrow, standing just around five inches tall and with a wingspan of about nine inches. They're known to live in the saguaro cactus, or inhabit old woodpecker holes.
These little guys aren't yet endangered, but their population is in decline. Their hooting sounds like laughter. Check it out.
The Blakiston's fish owl is really big.
They might not rival other big birds, like eagles, but the Blakiston's fish owl is the largest owl species. With a wingspan of six feet and a weight of up to 10 pounds, this big guy feasts on salmon and lives only in northeast Asia — specifically, the Russian Far East, remote northern forests of Japan and northeastern China, according to Blakiston's Fish Owl Project.
These are very rare, secretive owls, and they are an endangered species. Deforestation for things like logging roads are one of its biggest threats, and they breed infrequently — once every two years and usually only raise one chick.
Owls have excellent night vision.
Being mostly nocturnal, it probably isn’t surprising that owls see better at night than humans. But the reason why is pretty unique.
Owls have many retinal rods, the rods in your eyes that absorb dim lights. In some owl species, retinal rods outnumber light-loving retinal cones 30 to 1.
Owls also have "eyeshine" — essentially a layer of tissue behind their retinas that reflects light like mirrors and allows them to absorb and process way more light than we can.
Some owls mate for life.
The eastern screech owl has a complicated courtship ritual. A male approaches a female in an elaborate dance. The owls often bob and sway to get attention and even wink in the process. The female accepts the date by touching bills. The mating ritual itself is very fast.
That may seem like a lot of work, but it's for good reason. Once those two bills touch, the owls head off to find a nest together and the rest is history. They stay together for life, often returning to the same nesting spot year after year.
Eastern screen owls live for eight to 10 years, with the oldest recorded one having lived to 14 years and two months.
Spectacled owls really look like their name.
Found in the jungles of Mexico, Central America and South America, these uncommon owls got their name from a hilariously obvious source — spectacles. The white coloring around the adult owls looks like they’re wearing eyeglasses.
Funnily enough, baby spectacled owls have the exact opposite coloring of their parents. Here's what spectacled owls sound like.
Owls were symbols of mourning and death.
Humans have taken an interest in these mysterious birds since ancient times, beginning in ancient Egypt, where they were believed to be symbols of mourning and death. The ancient Egyptians' name for the bird, jmw, means "one who laments," according to At The Mummies Ball.
In ancient Rome, owls were considered harbingers of death or bad luck. The poet Ovid described the screech owl as "a loathsome bird, ill omen for mankind, a skulking screech owl, sorrow's harbinger."
Ancient Romans would nail owls to their doors to protect them from harm, and country people would hang them in the fields to ward off storms. And if you dreamed of an owl, you were likely to encounter a disaster.
Some owls look and sound like cats.
While owls can be intimidating birds of prey, others look deceptively adorable.
The long-eared owl has distinct ear tufts that sit above their heads, similar to a cat's. And they also sound familiar to cat lovers. Rather than hoot, this species screeches like a rambunctious cat. They're also known as "cat owls."
Found in North America, Europe and Asia, the long-eared owl prefers woodlands and often lives life as a squatter, taking over nests abandoned by other birds.
Some owls can hunt prey at insane distances.
While you might struggle to find the right box of cereal at the grocery store, owls wouldn't have this problem. Being birds of prey, all owls are good hunters. But some owls are really, really good hunters.
Native to boreal forests, the northern hawk owl doesn’t immediately look all that impressive. It isn’t the biggest owl, or the showiest, but it is a serious hunter. Northern hawk owls can spot and track prey up to half a mile away.
These owls are about the size of a crow and typically hunt during the day.
Songbirds hate the northern pygmy owl.
The northern pygmy owl is an unusual one. It's tiny in stature (about the size of a robin), hunts during the day, and prefers to sit and wait rather than chase. It's also a bit greedy.
Despite their small size, these owls prefer to snack on songbirds and other larger birds. To pull it off, the pygmy owl waits quietly and surprises the bird, grabbing it in its talons and heading for the treetops in a swift motion.
But the songbirds are getting wise to the northern pygmy owl’s antics. Some bird species like jays, blackbirds, wrens and hummingbirds form mobs and harass the sitting owls until they leave.
Owls can live in really strange places.
While most owls prefer to nest high in the trees, others are opportunistic and will make a home in abandoned buildings, barns or manmade nesting boxes. Then there's the tawny owl.
Despite being one of the most common owls in England, tawny owls are extreme isolationists. To keep away from other owls, they’ll make their nests in large gardens, woodland edges and even cemeteries. They're silent fliers who feast on mice and other small prey.
Their mating call is a classic sound.
Northern saw-whet owls sound mechanical.
While some owls hoot, screech or make nightmare noises , the northern saw-whet owl may have the most unusual call of all.
Entirely nocturnal, northern saw-whet owls nest completely covered during the day. At night, they still prefer to remain unseen, since their small size makes them easy prey.
But they don’t prefer to go unheard. The northern saw-whet has an unusual vocalization that sounds incredibly similar to the sound of a saw being slowly and rhythmically sharpened, hence the name. Check out the unusual voice.
An owl’s flight is silent.
It’s impossible for you to hear an owl’s flight with the naked ear. Unlike other birds that create wind resistance and a distinct sound when they take off, owls can glide through the night silently. It’s all in the feathers.
Owls don’t have many down feathers. Instead, their undercoat is largely made up of downy, which helps break up wind resistance and sound. The edges of their wings also have comb-like flutings that cut through air with less resistance.
Owls are firm believers in survival of the fittest.
When owls nest, many species will brood and provide food for the young for weeks, longer than some other bird species.
But that doesn’t mean they’re the most loving mothers of the animal kingdom. Owls will almost always feed the oldest or strongest of the bunch first. This ensures if food becomes scarce, at least some of the nest will survive.
And if food gets really scarce? Barn owls might just eat their siblings.
An owl’s eye color can tell you when they hunt.
While it's not a 100 percent foolproof technique, an owl’s eye color can help conservationists determine when that owl is most active.
Owls with orange eyes are most active at dawn and dusk. Owls with brown or black eyes likely developed that pigment over time to help camouflage them from prey since they hunt at night.
Owls with yellow eyes hunt during the day.
Owls don’t build nests
While most species of birds devote time to gathering leafy debris, twigs and other materials to build secure nests, owls don’t really have the time or inclination to do so. Instead, they opt to scope out easier, pre-existing homes.
Some owls look for abandoned nests they can take over. Some prefer man-made structures. And others simply park themselves in a tree cavity during the day.
Even when they’re breeding, owls rarely make any kind of true bird nest.
Owls are hard to train and make terrible pets.
Love owls? So do we. But don't start dreaming of having your own owl family. They're wild creatures and birds of prey, able to cause some serious injuries to their loving owners or their kids.
They don't like to be stroked or cuddled, either. And then there's the whole thing about regurgitating food, and their poop smells awful.
They're also incredibly hard to train.
You can help with owl conservation in your own backyard.
Deforestation and the slow march of human progress haven’t been kind to many animals, but owls especially are suffering from the loss of nesting places. While some species are highly particular in where they’ll live and sleep, others are happy to take up a nest just about anywhere.
One of the easiest ways to help grow owl populations is to leave fallen or dying trees on your property (at a safe distance from your roof, of course). Owls often nest in the remaining cavities. Some owls will also make a home out of man-made nesting boxes you can buy and install in trees.