Northern Spotted Owl
The owl is a solitary, mainly nocturnal bird of prey. Owls belong to the order Strigiformes, in which there are 222 known species. Owls mostly hunt small mammals, insects, and other birds, though a few species specialize in hunting fish. They are found in all regions of the Earth except Antarctica, most of Greenland, and some remote islands. Though owls are typically solitary, the literary collective noun for a group of owls is a parliament.
Owls have large forward-facing eyes and ears, a hawk-like beak, and usually a conspicuous circle of feathers around each eye called a facial disc. Although owls have binocular vision, their large eyes are fixed in their sockets, as with other birds, and they must turn their entire head to change views.
Owls are far-sighted, and are unable to clearly see anything within a few inches of their eyes. Their far vision, particularly in low light, is incredibly good, and they can turn their head 270 degrees around.
Different species of owls make different sounds. The facial disc helps to funnel the sound of prey to their ears. In some species, these are placed asymmetrically, for better directional location.
Owls are more closely related to the nightjars (Caprimulgiformes) than to the diurnal predators in the order Falconiformes. Some taxonomists place the nightjars in the same order as owls, as in the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy .
Owls' powerful clawed feet and sharp beak enable them to tear their prey to pieces before eating, although most items are swallowed whole. Their muffled wings and dull feathers allow them to fly practically silent and unseen. Some fish-eating owls, which have no need of silence, lack this adaptation.
Scientists studying the diets of owls are helped by their habit of disgorging the indigestible parts of their prey (bones, scales, fur, etc.) in the form of pellets. These "owl pellets" are often sold by companies to schools to be dissected by students as a lesson in biology and ecology, because they are plentiful and easy to interpret.
Owl eggs are white and almost spherical, and range in number from a few to a dozen dependent on species. Their nests are crudely built and may be in trees, underground burrows or barns and caves.
Most owls are nocturnal, but several, including the pygmy owls (Glaucidium), are crepuscular, or twilight active, hunting mainly at dawn and dusk. A few owls, such as the Burrowing Owl (Speotyto cunicularia) and the Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus), are also active during the day.
The smallest owls include the pygmy owls, some of which are only 13 cm (5.1 in) long, have a 32 cm (12.6-in) wingspan, and weigh only 50 g (1.76 oz). The largest owls are the eagle owls, the Eurasian Eagle Owl Bubo bubo and Verreaux's Eagle Owl B. lacteus, which may reach 76.2 cm (30 in) long, have a wingspan of just over 2 m (6.6 ft), and weigh about 4 kg (almost 9 lb).
Myth, lore, and popular culture
In many parts of the world, owls have been associated with death and misfortune, likely due to their nocturnal activity and common screeching call. However, owls have also been associated with wisdom and prosperity as a result of frequently being companion animals for goddesses.
Henry David Thoreau summarized one perception of owls, when he wrote in 1854's Walden, "I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and underdeveloped nature which men have not recognized. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all [men] have."
Ancient Egyptians used a representation of an owl for their hieroglyph for the sound m, although they would often draw this hieroglyph with its legs broken to keep this bird of prey from coming to life..
In the culture of the Native Americans, (e.g. the Native American Hopi nation), taboos often surround owls and they are often associated with evil or sorcery. Like eagle feathers, the possession of owl feathers as religious objects is regulated by federal law (e.g. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and Title 50 Part 22 Code of Federal Regulations).
The Aztecs and Mayans, along with other natives of Mesoamerica, considered the Owl a symbol of death and destruction. In fact, the Aztec god of death, Mictlantecuhtli, was often depicted with owls. There is a saying in Spanish that still exists today: cuando el tecolote canta, el indio se muere ("when the owl cries/sings, the Indian dies").
In Japanese culture, owls are seen as either negative or positive symbols depending on species. Owls are seen as divine messengers of the gods while Barn or Horned owls are perceived as demonic figures.
In Indian culture, a white owl is considered a companion of the goddess of wealth, and therefore a harbinger of prosperity. The owl has been adapted as an emblem to reflect its implications of wisdom (Wise old owl) by a revered military institution in India known as the Defence Service Staff College. In colloquial use, however, it is commonly used to refer to stupidity.
In the ancient region of Akkadia (located in present-day Iraq), the demoness Lilith is thought to have been associated with (screech) owls as well. However, prior to the rise of Islam, owls were considered evil omens and bad luck in most Middle Eastern pagan traditions. In modern times, although such superstitions are less prevalent, owls are still popularly considered "evil" because of their fierce, horrific appearance.
In Greek mythology, the owl, and specifically the Little Owl, was often associated with the Greek goddess Athena, a bird goddess who often assumed the form of an owl. Athena was also the goddess of wisdom, the Arts, and skills, and as a result, owls also became symbols of teaching and of institutions of learning, being included in the crest of arms of many universities. In the Western world, owls continue to be traditionally associated with wisdom. They are the unofficial mascot of the high-IQ society Mensa.
The Romans, in addition to having borrowed the Greek associations of the owl, also considered owls to be funerary birds, due to their nocturnal activity and often having their nests in inaccessible places. As a result, seeing an owl in the daytime was considered a bad omen. The vampiric strix of Roman mythology was in part based on the owl.
Likewise, in Romanian culture, the mournful call of an owl is thought to predict the death of somebody living in the neighbourhood. Such superstitions caused a minor disturbance when an owl showed up at Romanian President's residence, Cotroceni Palace.
Owls in popular culture
- Paul A. Johnsgard, North American Owls: Biology and Natural History ISBN 1-56098-724-3, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997
- Bernd Heinrich, One Man's Owl, 1987
- Bernd Heinrich, Owl in the House: A Naturalist's Diary, 1990
- Owl species of the World
- Animal Diversity Web Page: Owls
- Owl Brain Atlas
- Smithsonian Snowy Owl Info
- Australian Owls and Frogmouths
- Owls of the Harry Potter movies - learn about the owls featured in the films, threats to the species, and conservation activities
- World Owl Trust
- Typical Owl videos on the Internet Bird Collection
- Barn-Owl videos on the Internet Bird Collection
- Owl Physiology, 'The Owl Pages' website.
- Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918