9 Amazing Owl Facts

great horned owl flying at dawn with wings taking up whole photo

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Owls have been part of human culture and mythology for millennia, viewed as everything from wise good-luck charms to demonic harbingers of death. That fascination may come from their odd anatomy, which makes them stand out among other bird species. Owls can swivel their heads around, are nocturnal, fly nearly silently, and can stay hidden thanks to exceptional camouflage — not to mention their expressive faces.

Found on every continent except Antarctica, owls are wonderfully unique birds. Here are some of the things that make these creatures so special.

1. Owls' Eyes Are Actually Tubes

extreme close up of white owl face, showing huge bright orange eyes
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Owls don't have eyeballs — they're more like eye tubes. They're elongated and held in place by a bony structure in the skull called sclerotic rings. Because of this, owls can't move or roll their eyes within their sockets. (That's where the heightened neck mobility comes in.)

Owls have binocular vision similar to humans, meaning they can see an object with both eyes at the same time. This gives owls a great ability to judge height, weight, and distance.

They also have extraordinary night vision and far-sightedness, but there's a drawback. Because they are far-sighted, owls can't see objects up close. To make up for this, they have filoplumes — small hair-like feathers on their beaks and feet — to feel out their food when hunting.

Finally, owls have three eyelids. One is for blinking, one is for sleeping, and one is for keeping their eye "tubes" clean.

2. They Are Made to Have Flexible Necks

profile of brown eagle owl standing on stump with neck turned looking directly behind
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It's a misconception that owls can turn their necks 360 degrees. The accurate measure is 135 degrees in either direction from facing forward, which is 270 total degrees of movement. Not 360, but certainly nothing to scoff at.

This ability is important for the owl because of the immobility of its eyes, and the creature has a number of anatomical adaptations that make it possible. First, owls have 14 vertebrae in their necks, double the number for the average bird. They also have alternative blood vessels routing blood to the head and blood pooling systems to keep blood circulating to and from the brain when neck movements cut off circulation. Finally, owls have air-cushioned vessel casings so they don't rupture any blood vessels when snapping their necks around so dramatically and quickly.

3. Their Ears Are Wonky — But Effective

long-eared owl viewed through tree branches with ears slightly askew
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Owls may have amazing eyes, but it's their ears that do the real work when hunting. And it's their apparent imperfections that make them so effective.

Many species of owl have ears that are not only placed asymmetrically on their heads but are also different sizes. This allows the owl to receive sounds at slightly different times, providing the birds with an exceptional ability to pinpoint the location of a sound; when a sound is equally loud in both ears, the owl knows it has zeroed in on the source and distance.

Meanwhile, their flattened faces funnel sound to the ears, magnifying it so that they can detect even the slightest sound from tiny prey.

4. Their Feathers Help Them Fly Silently

snow owl with wings spread wide gliding over tall grass
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Owls are known as silent fliers — they must be completely quiet if they want to swoop in on fast-moving, far-off prey. To accomplish this, they have broad wings that allow them to glide, minimizing the flapping that creates most of the noise from a flying bird.

For when flapping is necessary, many owl species have special flight feathers that make the action as silent as possible. The leading edges of the primary flight feathers are stiff fringes, reminiscent of the teeth of a comb, that reduce turbulence. On the trailing edges of the same feathers are soft fringes, similar to the frayed ends of a torn piece of cloth, which further reduce any remaining turbulence.

Below these feathers, the wings of owls are also covered in fine downy feathers that dampen sound even more.

5. They Can Swivel Their Toes

close up of owl's sharp claws gripping a wide log to stand
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Owls are zygodactyl, which refers to the structure of their feet: two toes (toes two and three) facing forward and two (toes one and four) facing backward. This is what is seen in woodpeckers and parrots, and it is optimal for gripping on prey and branches. Owls are not stuck in this setup, however. They can rotate their fourth toe back and forth, which is why when owls are flying, they have three toes in front and one in back.

For a truly exceptional grip, owls have the ability to lock their toes around an object so that they don't need to continually contract their muscles. They get maximum grip with minimal effort.

6. Not All Owls Hoot

When you think of an owl's voice, you think of a gentle, quivering hoo-hoo. However, not all owls sound the same — not even close. The characteristic hoot belongs to the great horned owl, but there's more to hear.

The barn owl, for instance, emits a harsh screeching sound reminiscent of a squeaking door. Meanwhile, the barred owl sounds almost more like the neigh of a horse than any vocalization you'd expect from a bird. Watch the video below to hear just a few of the distinct and varied sounds that exist across owl species.

7. Some Stick Close to the Ground

baby burrowing owl standing outside its burrow, facing camera with big yellow eyes
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Not all owls fly high through the skies and nest in hollows up in tall trees. As one of the smallest owl species in North America, the aptly named burrowing owl is opportunistic and stays close to the ground. They nest in underground burrows, often taking over ones left by prairie dogs, squirrels, and armadillos. They'll dig their own homes if necessary, though.

Often, burrowing owls will line the entrance of their burrows with animal dung. This is a wise hunting strategy, as dung works as bait for insects that the owl can then feed on.

8. They Are Symbolic

Owls carry rich symbolism across a number of cultures, and the meaning of these creatures varies greatly. Most popular is the owl's representation of wisdom, which can be seen throughout Western folklore and even pop culture such as Winnie the Pooh. This is likely because of its intelligent, strategic approach to hunting.

Native Americans believe in the owl's connection to wisdom but also connect it to death. Hearing its hoot can be considered unlucky. In Greek mythology, the snow owl is the sacred animal of Athena, goddess of war. Any sighting of the bird on the battlefield was considered to be her presence.

9. Some Species Are Declining

There are approximately 250 species of owls across the world, and unfortunately, not all of them are thriving. The IUCN Red List labels dozens of owl species at varying degrees of concern, from near threatened to critically endangered. Some notable at-risk species include the snowy owl, spotted owl, and a few pygmy owls. Continue reading for ideas to help conservation and protection efforts.

Save At-Risk Owl Species

  • Use traps instead of poison for pest control.
  • Avoid tearing down trees unnecessarily.
  • Adopt an owl from organizations like The Owls Trust.
View Article Sources
  1. "Snowy Owl: Bubo scandiacus." IUCN Red List, 2020, e.T22689055A181375387., doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22689055A181375387.en 

  2. "Spotted Owl: Strix occidentalis." IUCN Red List, 2020, p. e.T22689089A180937862., doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22689089A180937862.en