Owls are birds that belong to the order of Strigiformes that are known worldwide for their nocturnal and solitary habits. There are over 200 species of owls that are present in this order. This means that there are 200 different types of owls that are spread worldwide. The typical owl characteristics include an upright stance, a large and broad head, binocular vision, binaural hearing, and feather adapted for their silent flight.
The owl classification can be further divided from the Strigiformes order into two families: (i) Strigidae - The true or typical owl family and, (ii) Tytonidae - The barn owl family. All the different types of owls belong to these families. One characteristic difference between the two families is that although the true owl family has variation in almost every anatomical feature, the barn owl family mostly have heart-shaped faces.
Even though most owls are nocturnal in nature there are two exceptions to the case. They are the northern hawk owl which is a day-time owl and the gregarious burrowing owl which is dusk until dawn type owl.
Owls are spread all over the world and are so common that they have become part of human culture across all the different continents except antarctica. They have a place either good or bad in every culture that currently exists in the world. And even though they usually have less contact with the humans along with being common they are also unique in that sense. The owl Hedwig in the Harry Potter stories and Bilbo Baggins’s distress call in The Hobbit are a very recent and prime example of owl symbolism and cultural integration.
Anatomy of Different Types of Owl
The general characteristics of all types of owl include large forward-facing eyes and ear-holes, a hawk-like curved beak and a flat face. They also have a facial disc around each eye. The feathers in these discs facilitate the focusing of the sound from varying distances onto the ear cavities that are asymmetrically placed. This asymmetry has been a part of the natural selection process as it helps the owls to hear better and locate the source of the sound in order to hunt a prey, to understand about the surroundings for territorial defense and to hear a mating call during the breeding season especially during the night time. Not only the hearing but also the in-depth vision of the owl is also quite well developed. The eyes of the owl are larger than their skull and are fixed into a socket in the front. This binocular vision helps them to locate prey even in the darkness of the night. But since the eyes are fixed in sockets they cannot have all-around access. For this reason, the owl has a special evolved 14 neck vertebrate system and adapted circulatory system that allows an owl to rotate its head up to 270°. This not only helps an owl to see better but also to locate the sound source as well. So, when it completely rotates the head and fixates on a particular sound (when both the ears receive the same amplitude of frequency of sound) then it can have the best vision and location of the prey.
Apart from the eyes and the ears another one of the specialised owl characteristics is that of the silent flight. One of the interesting owl features is that an owl can fly and the specially adapted wings reduce the frequency of the sound of its flight above 2 kHz, so much so that the flight sound is even lower than its own capacity of hearing. They cannot only fly silently but also slower than many other prey birds. This quality is assisted by the serrated edges or jagged edges along the owl’s flight feathers that bring down the noise of the flapping to nearly silent mechanism. The velvety structures on the surface of the flight feathers of an owl not only reduce the noise of the flapping feathers but also reduce the aerodynamic disturbances. The only drawback is that the wings are not waterproof and hence the owl cannot fly when having dropped into a water body. Another owl characteristics behavior is the camouflage capability. In that too the feathers provide an advantage to sit still and blend into the environment.
Talons and beak of the owl species are also specialised. An owl kills its prey using talons that are enormous when compared to its body by crushing the skull and kneading the body of the prey. Due to these talons, an owl can engage a prey of its own body size. The claws of the owl are sharped and carved aiding it in the killing. The beak helps the owl to tear up the tissues and open up the prey. The curved beak has the intended purpose of not providing any hindrance to the vision and also avoid reflecting the sound waves from the face.
Owl Characteristics Behavior
A well-known information about owl is that it is nocturnal and actively hunts in the night. There are exceptions to this as given above. Another example is the pygmy owl (owl scientific name - Glaucidium) which hunts during dusk and dawn time. The short-eared owl (owl scientific name - Asio flammeus) is an owl along with the northern hawk owl is a day-time that hunts and stays awake during the day. The peculiar owl characteristics aided by the anatomical owl features make them one of the most habitable species on Earth. As mentioned above the more than 200 owl species are present in diverse ecosystems around the world with the exceptions of polar ice caps and few islands. Also, the diets of different types of owls include small mammals, insects and other birds. This is why the owls are used for rodent population control as well. Certains species also specialise in hunting fish. An interesting fact about owl is that a group of owls is known as “parliament”.
Continuation of the Owl Species
Owls are sexually dimorphic i.e. the male and female of the species have different features apart from just different sex organs. The degree of sexual dimorphism amongst these 200 species of owls varies significantly. One common characteristic although in all the owl species is that the females are slightly larger than the males. The exact explanation for this is yet not clear and there are numerous theories regarding it. Most of the theories point that the males have smaller males have been naturally selected due to the reasons of agility which helps them not only in hunting prey and scavenging food but also for saving their own lives in case of danger. On the other hand, the females have more crushing strength than the males for crushing the skull of the prey. But during the breeding seasons, the males usually go out to hunt for the food as compared to females where their agility has a role to play.
The eggs of the owl are typically white in colour and are spherical in shape. On average three or four eggs are laid during a breeding season by a pair. One interesting owl information regarding reproduction is that in the case of some species of owls the females do not mate with the same male for a lifetime. Female burrowing owls generally travel around to find other mates, while the male stays in his territory and mates with other females.
Owl Symbolism and Mythology
Owls have been so prominent in their existence that they have become a unique part of the cultural heritage across diverse cultures in the world. There are a lot of fun facts about owls that exist because of their distinctive characteristics in human folklore. Owl symbolism is associated with both good and evil in mythological stories. In African cultures, owls are considered to bring death, ill-health, and bad luck. Amongst Kikuyu of Kenya, it is believed that if someone saw an owl or heard its hoot, someone was going to die. Even in Native American cultures, owls are considered to be bearers of supernatural danger. One of the fun facts about owls that stems from this is the warning to misbehaving children that “the owls will get you.”
In native North American cultures of Aztecs, Uto-Aztecs, tribe of Hočągara, the Maya, owls are surrounded by the associations with sorcery, spirits of the dead, no-luck, etc. In Apache and Seminole tribes the hooting of owls is associated with boogeyman stories which were used to keep children indoors at night.
But this does not mean that owl symbolism is only connected to the negative aspects. In Asiatic and many other cultures owl symbolism is connected to the benign, positive and good omens. One prevalent story about Gengis Khan being saved from enemies because of the hooting of an owl has made owls a benign omen. In Japan, owls are considered lucky and are carried in the form of a charm or a talisman. In Hinduism, an owl is the vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi. The modern west considers owls as a representation of wisdom and vigilance. This idea of owls being wisdom bearers goes back to ancient Greek, where Athena, the Greek Goddess of wisdom was represented by the symbol of an owl.
In Ojibwe tribes and their aboriginal counterparts believed owls as a symbol of the high status of spirituality along with the consideration of harbingers of death. The Pawnee tribes considered owls to provide protection from any danger in their realms. The Yakama tribes use owls as a powerful totem often to guide through the forest and locate resources and in management of resources.
All of this owl information goes on to show the close relationship between human culture and owl symbolism.
Conservation of The Owl Species
The international CITES treaty - Conservation on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has listed the owl species in Appendix II (Appendix II: This list includes a list of species that will come under threat of extinction if the trading and markets of these species is not stopped). Usually, there is less interaction between owls and humans owing to their different active schedules. But even then owls have long been hunted by humans and recently the poaching of owls seems to be on the rise. TRAFFIC (The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network) published reports in November 2008 of the seizure of 900 “oven-ready” owls in Malaysia. The Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Malaysia raided this huge haul of owls which highlighted the start of a new trend in the wild meat in the region. In this raid, the seizure included dead and plucked barn owls, spotted wood owls, amongst other endangered creatures.
Fun Facts About Owls
Following are some of the fun facts about owls:
As mentioned above, the eyes of the owls are fixed in the front. Exploring this further, the eyes are not true eyeballs. Their eyes extend into fixed tubular structures which are different from the usual prey birds of the group Strigiformes.
Owls can completely swallow their prey. They then expel the indigestible parts of the prey such as bones, scales and fur in the form of pellets. Barn owls eat up to 1000 mice in a year. Hence, they are also used for rodent population control on the farm.
Not all owls hoot. Different species of owls produce different sounds helping them in finding mates or announce their territorial presence to potential competitors. Barn owls make hissing noises to scare off predators. The eastern screech-owl whinnies like a horse, and a saw-whet owl sounds like an old whetstone sharpening a saw.
Conclusion About Owls
After having gone through this article, it is safe to say that as much as owls are widespread and common they are unique too. Humans and owls have existed for thousands of years so much so that owls play significant roles in human civilization. From their unique features and evolutionarily adapted characteristics to their conservation, the article covers subsequent owl information.