Are all owls really nocturnal? : And other common misconceptions about owls

We’ve all been brought up (particularly in the UK) with common myths about owls; they all say ‘twit twoo’, they can turn their heads all the way round, they’re all nocturnal and of course that they are the wisest of all creatures. But how many of these are actually true?

If you ask any child or even an adult what sound an owl makes they will answer with ‘twit twoo’, and how they sometimes hear the noise of the owl down a quiet dark country lane at night. Firstly, the only owl that says ‘twit twoo’ is the tawny owl, Strix aluco, and it’s actually a breeding pair, the male emitting the ‘twit’ and the female the ‘twoo’ sound. However, the tawny owl, one of five recognised and protected British owl species (along with the barn owl, the little owl, the long eared owl and the short eared owl) is the most common of all the owl species in this country, so the chances of you hearing the ‘twit twoo’ sound is much more likely than hearing the screech of the barn owl for example.

How about the myth that they can turn their heads all the way around, or as a little girl once told me ‘they can turn their heads around and around and around…’? I’m afraid the truth is if this was the case the owl would choke or its head would fall off! However, owls can turn their heads up to 270 degrees each way (left or right) and 180 degrees upwards, and they do this by having twice as many vertebrae in their neck than mammals do. But why do they do this? Having such large eyes means that their eye sockets are fixed in their skull, so unlike us they can’t look left or right by just moving their eyes. Instead owls have to move their whole head to focus their eyes on their prey.

Next, the common thought that all owls are nocturnal. Again a myth I’m afraid. Although about 60% of all owl species are nocturnal, the rest are diurnal (active during the day) or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk). Interestingly, you can actually figure out when each species of owl is most active by simply looking at their eyes. If they have black eyes they’re nocturnal, if they have yellow eyes they’re diurnal and if they have orange eyes they are a crepuscular species (see figure 1). Pretty neat, right?

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Figure 1: A) snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) with yellow eyes is a diurnal species, B) European eagle owl (Bubo bubo) with orange eyes is a crepuscular species and B)Tawny owl (Strix aluco) with black eyes is a nocturnal species

Finally, the myth of the wise old owl has existed for thousands of years, ever since people worshipped the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, who had a pet owl (see figure 2). Clearly people assumed that if Athena was wise, owls must be too. This myth has continued into modern culture with characters such as ‘Owl’ in Winnie the Pooh and ‘Archimedes’ the owl in The Sword in the Stone (great film though :D). The truth is owls are clever when it comes to hunting, but really that’s all they need to be able to do. They don’t need to figure out the answers to a crossword puzzle like we might try to do, or decipher the instructions to microwave a meal, they need to hunt and they’re very good at it. The reason for the case that owls are not ‘wise’ is because underneath all the fluff and feathers they have a skull the size of a golf ball and inside a brain about the size of a 5p coin; one third is used for eyesight, one third for hearing and one third for general thinking. So, although most of what you thought you knew about owls may not actually be true, I’m sure you agree they are still incredibly fascinating creatures.

Figure 2: The owl of Athena

This post, by author Alice Maher, was kindly donated by the Scouse Science Alliance and the original text can be found here.

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