10 Fascinating Facts About Owls

There are 200 species, and they may be as old as the dinosaurs

Hailed for their supposed wisdom and their appetite for pesky rodents but derided as pests and subjects of superstition, owls have had a love/hate relationship with humans since the beginning of recorded history. There are 200 species of owls, and they might date back to the days of dinosaurs. Here are some other owlish facts:

Two Main Types

The tawny owl
The tawny owl is just one of the more than 225 owl species in the world.

Nick Jewell/Flickr/CC by 2.0

Most of the 200 species of owls are so-called true owls, with large heads and round faces, short tails, and muted feathers with mottled patterns. The remaining dozen-plus species are barn owls, which have heart-shaped faces, long legs with powerful talons, and moderate size. Except for the common barn owl, which is found worldwide, the most familiar owls in North America and Eurasia are the true owls.

Nocturnal Hunters

Barn Owl
Simon Lewis

Although other carnivorous birds, such as hawks and eagles, hunt during the day, most owls hunt at night. Their dark colors make them nearly invisible to their prey—insects, small mammals, and other birds—and their wings beat almost silently. These adaptations, combined with their enormous eyes, put owls among the most efficient night hunters on the planet.

Eyes Fixed in Sockets

Great Horned Owl

Temari 09/Flickr/CC by 2.0

One of the most remarkable things about owls is that they move their entire heads when looking at something rather than moving their eyes, like most other vertebrates. Owls need large, forward-facing eyes to gather scarce light during their nocturnal hunts, and evolution couldn't spare the musculature to allow these eyes to rotate. Owls have astonishingly flexible necks that let them turn their heads three-quarters of a circle, or 270 degrees, compared to 90 degrees for the average human being.

'Pellets' Tell Their Story

Backyard Owl
Adding an owl box to your backyard can help attract these raptors.

Seabamirum/Flickr.com/CC BY 2.0

Owls swallow their prey whole without biting or chewing. Most of the unfortunate animal is digested, but the parts that can't be broken down—such as bones, fur, and feathers—are regurgitated as a hard lump, called a "pellet," a few hours after the owl's meal. By examining these pellets, researchers can identify what a given owl has been eating and when. (Baby owls don't produce pellets, since their parents feed them soft, regurgitated food in the nest.)

Female Is Larger

Eagle owl watching
Sean Gladwell / Getty Images

No one is sure why, on average, female owls are slightly larger than males. One theory is that smaller males are more agile and therefore more suited to catching prey,​ while females brood young. Another is that because females don't like to leave their eggs, they need a larger body mass to sustain them for long periods without eating. A third theory is less likely but more amusing: Since female owls often attack and drive off unsuitable males during mating season, the smaller size and greater agility of males prevent them from getting hurt.

Not so Smart

Sean Gladwell / Getty Images

In popular culture, owls are invariably depicted as extremely intelligent, but it's virtually impossible to train an owl, while parrots, hawks, ​and pigeons can be taught to retrieve objects and memorize simple tasks. Basically, people think owls are smart for the same reason they think kids who wear glasses are smart: Bigger-than-usual eyes convey the impression of high intelligence. This doesn't mean owls are especially dumb, either; they need lots of brain power to hunt at night.

May Have Coexisted With Dinosaurs

Great Horned Owl sitting on a wooden rafter
Ambre Haller / Getty Images

It's difficult to trace the evolutionary origins of owls, much less their apparent kinship with contemporary nightjars, falcons, and eagles. Owl-like birds such as Berruornis and Ogygoptynx lived 60 million years ago during the Paleocene epoch, which means it's possible that the ancestors of owls coexisted with dinosaurs toward the end of the Cretaceous period. Owls are one of the most ancient terrestrial birds, rivaled only by the gamebirds (e.g., chickens, turkeys, and pheasants) of the order Galliformes.

Powerful Talons

Low Angle View Of Owl Perching On Wooden Post Against Sky
Ross Taylor / EyeEm / Getty Images

As befitting birds that hunt and kill small prey, owls have some of the strongest talons in the avian kingdom, capable of seizing and grasping squirrels, rabbits, and other squirmy mammals. One of the largest owl species, the five-pound great horned owl, can curl its talons with a force of 300 pounds per square inch, roughly comparable to the strongest human bite. Some unusually large owls have talons comparable in size to those of much bigger eagles, which may explain why even desperately hungry eagles usually won't attack their smaller cousins.

Not Good Pets

Spotted Owl Hiding In Tree Trunk
Janmejaysinh Jadeja / EyeEm / Getty Images

It isn't a good idea to keep owls as pets, not just because that's illegal in the U.S. and most other countries. Owls eat only fresh food, requiring a constant supply of mice, gerbils, rabbits, and other small mammals. Also, their beaks and talons are very sharp, so you'd also need a stock of bandages. if that weren't enough, an owl can live for more than 30 years, so you'd be donning your industrial-strength gloves and flinging gerbils into its cage for many years.

Impact on Human Culture

white faced scops owl
Alan Tunnicliffe Photography / Getty Images

Ancient civilizations had widely divergent opinions about owls. The Greeks chose owls to represent Athena, the goddess of wisdom, but Romans were terrified of them, considering them bearers of ill omens. The Aztecs and Mayans hated and feared owls as symbols of death and destruction, while many Native American tribes scared their children with stories of owls waiting in the dark to carry them away. The ancient Egyptians had a kinder view of owls, believing that they protected the spirits of the dead as they traveled to the underworld.