15 Mysterious Facts About Owls

Owls are enigmatic birds, by turns mysterious, lovable, or spooky, depending on who you ask. With over 200 species living on every continent except Antarctica, owls have super-tuned senses that help them hunt prey all over the world. And they’re pretty darn cute, too.

1. OWLS CAN TURN THEIR HEADS ALMOST ALL THE WAY AROUND—BUT NOT QUITE.

It’s a myth that owls can rotate their heads 360 degrees. The birds can actually turn their necks 135 degrees in either direction, which gives them 270 degrees of total movement. According to scientists, bone adaptations, blood vessels with contractile reservoirs, and a supporting vascular network allow the owls to turn their heads that far without cutting off blood to the brain.

2. OWLS HAVE FAR-SIGHTED, TUBULAR EYES. 

Instead of spherical eyeballs, owls have "eye tubes" that go far back into their skulls—which means their eyes are fixed in place, so they have to turn their heads to see. The size of their eyes helps them see in the dark, and they're far-sighted, which allows them to spot prey from yards away. Up close, everything is blurry, and they depend on small, hair-like feathers on their beaks and feet to feel their food.

3. THEY HAVE SUPER-POWERED HEARING. 

Owls are capable of hearing prey under leaves, plants, dirt, and snow. Some owls have sets of ears at different heights on their heads, which lets them locate prey based on tiny differences in sound waves. Other owls have flat faces with special feathers that focus sound, essentially turning their faces into one big ear. (The “ear tufts” on some owls are feathers.)

4. OWL FLIGHT IS SILENT.

Unlike most birds, owls make virtually no noise when they fly. They have special feathers that break turbulence into smaller currents, which reduces sound. Soft velvety down further muffles noise.

5. OWLS SWALLOW PREY WHOLE, THEN BARF UP THE CARCASS. 

Getting killed by an owl is gruesome. First the owl grabs the prey and crushes it to death with its strong talons. Then, depending on the size, it either eats the prey whole or rips it up. The owl’s digestive tract processes the body, and the parts that can’t be digested, like fur and bones, are compacted into a pellet, which the owl later regurgitates. Sometimes, those pellets are collected for kids to dissect in school.

6. THEY SOMETIMES EAT OTHER OWLS. 

Not only do owls eat surprisingly large prey (some species, like the eagle owl, can even grab small deer), they also eat other species of owls. Great horned owls, for example, will attack the barred owl. The barred owl, in turn, sometimes eats the Western screech-owl. In fact, owl-on-owl predation may be a reason why Western screech-owl numbers have declined.

7. OWLS FEED THE STRONGEST BABIES FIRST.

As harsh as it sounds, the parents always feed the oldest and strongest owlet before its sibling. This means that if food is scarce, the youngest chicks will starve. After an owlet leaves the nest, it often lives nearby in the same tree, and its parents still bring it food. If it can survive the first winter on its own, its chances of survival are good.

8. THEY'RE MASTERS OF CAMOUFLAGE. 

Many owls sleep in broad daylight, but the colors and markings on their feathers—like the African Scops Owl, above—let them blend in with their surroundings.

9. SOMETIMES THEY MAKE A TERRIFYING HISSING NOISE. 

Aside from hooting, owls make a variety of calls, from screeches to whistles to squeaks. The barn owl hisses when it feels threatened, which sounds like something from a nightmare.

10. ELF OWLS LIVE IN CACTI.

The smallest owl is the elf owl, which lives in the southwestern United States and Mexico. It will sometimes make its home in the giant saguaro cactus, nesting in holes made by other animals. However, the elf owl isn’t picky and will also live in trees or on telephone poles.

11. BURROWING OWLS TAKE OVER PRAIRIE DOG TOWNS—AND HUNT WITH POOP.

The long-legged burrowing owl lives in South and North America. One of the few owls that is active during the daytime, it nests in the ground, moving into tunnels excavated by other animals such as prairie dogs. They’ll also dig their own homes if necessary. Then, they'll surround the entrances to their burrows with dung and "sit at the burrow entrance all day long and it looks like they're doing nothing," University of Florida zoologist Douglas Levey told National Geographic. But they're not doing nothing: They're fishing. The poop is bait for dung beetles, one of the owls' favorite types of prey. "Everybody who studies burrowing owls knows they bring dung back to their burrows, and they know that burrowing owls eat a lot of dung beetles. But nobody had put two and two together," Levey, co-author of a 2004 study announcing the behavior, said.

12. OWLS ARE NATURAL PEST CONTROL FOR FARMERS. 

Owls eat a lot of rodents. A single barn owl family will eat 3000 rodents in a four-month breeding cycle. One owl can eat 50 pounds of gophers in a year. Many farmers are installing owl nesting boxes in the hopes that owls will clean out pests like gophers and voles from their land. This natural form of pest control is safer and cheaper than using poison, and it’s better for the owls too. Many owls die each year from eating rodents that have been poisoned.

13. OWLS WERE ONCE A SIGN OF VICTORY IN BATTLE ... 

In ancient Greece, the Little Owl was the companion of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, which is one reason why owls symbolize learning and knowledge. But Athena was also a warrior goddess and the owl was considered the protector of armies going into war. If Greek soldiers saw an owl fly by during battle, they took it as a sign of coming victory. 

14. ... AND A SYMBOL OF DEATH. 

From ancient times on, owls have been linked with death, evil, and other superstitions. Many cultures saw owls as a sign of impending death. For example, an owl was said to have predicted the death of Julius Caesar. They’ve also been associated with witches and other so-called evil beings. While this may sound like Halloween fun, many cultures still have superstitions about owls and in some places, owls are killed based on these beliefs.

15. OWLS AND HUMANS GENERALLY GET ALONG.

Owls have been popular since ancient times. They show up in Egyptian hieroglyphs and the 30,000-year-old cave paintings in France. Falconers have used owls since the Middle Ages, although not as commonly as other birds. Today, we still love owls. Though it’s illegal to keep them as pets in the United States, they’re intelligent and sociable. (Most of the time, anyway—owls can attack humans when feeling threatened.) In Japan, there are even owl cafés, where you can hang out with owls while drinking tea. 

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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