The owl is one of the most fascinating creatures to ever exist, with its unique characteristics making it a centuries-old symbol of wisdom, strength and resilience. For these reasons, it’s common for U.S. high schools to adopt the owl as their mascot, companies to use the owl in their marketing, and movies to feature them prominently including Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, Clash of the Titans, Legend of the Guardians, and many more.
While you may think you know a lot about the owl and its many species, these majestic birds are hiding some characteristics and talents that will surprise even the biggest owl admirer.
1. Reversible Toes & Asymmetrical Ears
Owls are a fascinating bird that have adapted to various ecosystems around the world. There are more than 200 owl species and their adaption over centuries has given them several distinct physical features, such as their large heads, beady eyes, stocky bodies, and soft feathers. While these are commonly known physical traits, what’s not commonly known is that owls also possess a short reversible toe and asymmetrical ears. Their reversible toe can point forward or backwards, allowing them to easily perch or hunt. Owls’ ears are positioned at different heights on their heads so they can pinpoint sounds in multiple directions and dimensions.
2. Those Aren’t Ears on their Heads
We just learned that owls do have ears, but they’re not those two points protruding from their heads—and they’re not horns either. They are owl turfs, which are two bunches of feathers that stand upright on their head and have nothing to do with hearing. They are used to help camouflage themselves, appearing as twigs or branches when raised and helping them hide from predators. However, not all owls have tufts. Those without them are called round-headed owls and often raise their facial “eyebrows” to mimic the tufts of other owl species.
3. Eyes in the Back of their Heads
We’re leaning on a popular saying with the line above, but it’s almost true for owls. Owls have the ability to rotate their necks up to 270 degrees with incredible speed, which makes them the only creature on earth that can almost completely see behind themselves without turning their body. This incredible physical characteristic is due to the fact that they have 14 neck bones and a special bone at the base of their skull that collectively allow this movement. This allows them to swivel their head instantly if they sense prey is sneaking up from behind.
4. They Have Built-in Binoculars
Not literally, of course, but owls possess large, immobile, tube-shaped eyes that face forward. Their eye structure provides binocular-like vision and enhanced depth perception, allowing them to judge how far away an object or predator is, its size, and how fast it’s moving. This is in stark contrast to other bird species, which have an eye on each side of its head and sees two completely different scenes from each. For an owl, they very much see what a human sees through binoculars, with overlapping vision between the two eyes and 125 degrees of vision.
5. You Can’t Hear Them Coming
Owls have a silent flight mechanism that allows them to swoop down on insects, frogs, lizards, snakes, fish, mice, rabbits, squirrels and other prey undetected. Their “phantom flying” is largely responsible for their notorious predatory skills, and is due to their unique feather structure. The outer edges of their forward wing feathers feature a stiff fringe similar to the teeth of a comb. Their rear wing feathers have a soft, hairlike fringe. The combination of these fringed edges softens the flow of air as it moves over the wings, creating a velvety surface that absorbs noise as the feathers slide over one another.
6. They Do Far More than “Hoot”
A defining characteristic of owls is their notorious “hoot.” However, each owl species has its own unique sound, some of which don’t even closely resemble the traditional hoot mimicked by humans. Owl vocalizations are used for various reasons such as claiming and defending territories, attracting mates, and communicating with each other. Owl sounds are categorized into different types, including hoots, chitters, squawks, and non-vocal communication like hisses and bill clacking. For example, the Barn Owl relies on high-pitched screams, the Eastern Screech-Owl is recognizable by its descending whinny capped off with a trill, and the Great Horned Owl is noted for its deep, gravelly hoots.
7. Their Mating Rituals are Best-in-Class
While owls are known for having impeccable predatory skills and a fearful presence, a little-known fact is that their mating rituals are a rare display of soft affection for such a dominating bird. Owl courtship involves unique calling, special flight displays for the object of their affection, food offerings, and physical interactions such as mutual preening. They are generally monogamous, forming pairs that last a season or a lifetime depending on the species. They are highly-territorial of their loved ones and will aggressively defend their nests.
8. Owls Swallow Their Food Whole
Since an owl’s stomach doesn’t contain digestive juices to break down swallowed food like humans, they swallow their food whole or in large pieces. Their stomachs produce hard pieces packed into tight, sausage-like pellets, which they spit up 10-20 hours after a meal. This has given researchers a treasure trove of material to study regarding owl eating habits and undiscovered animals in certain geographic areas, as they are able to pick apart these pellets to reveal bone, teeth, feathers and other skeletal features to identify the predatory targets of owls.
Considering the fascinating features of owls, both commonly known and unknown, it’s no wonder why this majestic bird is an American symbol of strength, wisdom, and independence. It’s for these reasons that high schools, universities, and even companies use the owl as its symbol, demonstrating their dominance and strength. Hootie is one such example, a personal safety alarm designed to help women live freely and confidently without fear of being victimized by an attacker. The device features an impressive 130-decibel alarm (a very loud “hoot!”) and bright strobe light—providing a crucial source of empowerment, protection, and peace of mind for women navigating everyday life.