We’ve all heard stories about owls and certain things we associate with them: they’re wise, they can turn their heads 360 degrees and only make hooting noises. None of that is true, as mythology and folklore have shrouded owls for centuries. Although they are incredible hunters, owls really aren’t much smarter than other birds and here’s why.
70% of an owl’s brain is used for sight and there’s not a lot of room for much else. In contrast to intelligent birds like crows and parrots, a study showed great grey owls failing a simple cognitive test. The owls needed to pull a string to receive a treat and were unable to do so. The wise owl myth was developed in Ancient Greece with the Goddess of Wisdom Athena carrying around an owl.
Owls aren’t stupid by any means, as they have been recorded using tools such as burrowing owls. They have been observed using animal dung to lure dung beetles to their burrows and capture them.
Another popular myth is owls being able to turn their heads 360 degrees. The truth is they would break their necks if they tried, though owls are capable of turning their heads a maximum of 270 degrees. An owl is able to rotate its head because of the multiple small bones in the neck, helping it achieve a wider range of motion. The trait isn’t unique as many birds are capable of rotating their heads in similar ways.
Hooting comes to mind when thinking of owls, even though they make a range of sounds. Owls screech, whistle, bark, growl and shriek. These sounds are called vocalisations and owls make them for various reasons. The classic ‘hooo’ sound is usually territorial and belongs to the great-horned owl. Owls will screech when feeling threatened or as a call for food.
Owls are amazing animals, with their ability to hunt and adapt to their environments. Listening to stories about them is fun, but it’s important to recognise fact from fiction.