10 Fascinating Facts About Owls

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Do You Know These 10 Essential Owl Facts?

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Hailed for their supposed wisdom and cuteness but derided as pests, objects of superstition and devourers of pesky rodents, owls have had a love/hate relationship with humans since the beginning of recorded history. On the following slides, you'll discover 10 essential owl facts, ranging from how these predatory birds hunt to how smart they actually are.

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There Are Two Main Types of Owls

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The vast majority of the roughly 200 species of owls are so-called true owls, which possess large heads with round faces, short tails, and muted feathers with mottled patterns. The remainder, accounting for a little over a dozen species, are barn owls, which can be distinguished by their heart-shaped faces, long legs equipped with powerful talons, and moderate size. With the exception of the common barn owl—which has a worldwide distribution—the most familiar owls, at least to residents of North America and Eurasia, are the true owls.

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Most Owls Are Nocturnal Hunters

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Evolution has an efficient way of relegating animals to particular niches: because other carnivorous birds (like hawks and eagles) hunt during the day, most owls have adapted to hunting at night. The dark coloration of owls makes them nearly invisible to their prey—which consists of insects, small mammals, and other birds—and their wings are structured so as to beat in almost complete silence. These adaptations, combined with their enormous eyes (see next slide), makes owls some of the most efficient night hunters on the planet, wolves and coyotes not excluded.

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The Eyes of Owls Are Fixed in Their Sockets

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

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You Can Tell a Lot About an Owl by its Pellets

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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—like bones, fur, and feathers—are regurgitated as a hard lump, called a "pellet," a few hours after the owl's meal. The details are a bit revolting, but by examining its pellets in detail, researchers can identify exactly what a given owl has been eating, and when. (Baby owls don't produce pellets, since their parents nourish them with soft, regurgitated food in the nest.)

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Female Owls Are Larger Than Males

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No one is quite sure why, on average, female owls tend to be slightly larger than their male counterparts. One theory is that smaller males are more agile, and therefore more suited to catching prey while the females brood young; another is that, because females don't like to leave their eggs, they need a larger body mass to sustain themselves for long periods of time 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.

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Owls Aren't as Smart as You Think

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In books, movies, and TV shows, owls are invariably depicted as extremely intelligent—but the fact is that it's virtually impossible to train an owl, while birds as diverse as parrots, hawks, ​and even pigeons can be taught to retrieve objects and memorize simple tasks. Basically, people think owls are smart for the same reason they think all kids who wear glasses are smart: bigger-than-usual eyes convey the impression of high intelligence. (This isn't to say that owls are especially dumb, either; you need lots of brain power to successfully hunt at night!)

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Owls May Have Coexisted With Dinosaurs

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It has proven especially difficult to trace the evolutionary origins of owls, much less their apparent kinship with contemporary nightjars, falcons and eagles. We do know that owl-like birds like Berruornis and Ogygoptynx lived 60 million years ago, during the Paleocene epoch, which means it's entirely possible that the ultimate ancestors of owls coexisted with dinosaurs toward the end of the Cretaceous period. Technically speaking, owls are one of the most ancient groups of terrestrial birds, rivaled only by the gamebirds (i.e., chickens, turkeys and pheasants) of the order Galliformes.

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Owls Have Extremely Powerful Talons

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As befitting birds that hunt and kill small, skittering prey, owls are equipped with 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 about 300 pounds per square inch, roughly comparable to the strongest human bite. Some unusually large owls have talons comparable in size to much bigger eagles, which may explain why even desperately hungry eagles usually won't attack their smaller, big-eyed cousins.

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Owls Don't Make Very Good Pets

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Leaving aside the fact that it's illegal, in the U.S. and most other countries, for private individuals to keep owls as pets, there are any number of reasons why this isn't a good idea. For one thing, owls will only eat fresh food, meaning you have to maintain a constant supply of mice, gerbils, rabbits, and other small mammals; for another, the beaks and talons of owls are very sharp, so you'll also have to keep a ready stock of band-aids; and as if all that weren't enough, an owl can live for more than 30 years, so you'll be donning your industrial-strength gloves and flinging gerbils into its cage well into late middle age.

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Owls Have Had an Outsized Impact on Human Culture

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