The Wise Owl

Examining the Owl’s Intelligence: Pop Culture Myth or Fact?

The Wise Owl

Now that 2019 is here, my friend posted her New Year’s resolution on Facebook proclaiming she hopes to be wise like the owl.

But that got me to thinking.

Are owls actually wise?

Growing up my grandfather had a ceramic owl bank with the inscription, ‘Be Wise, Save.’

I looked at his bank for more than 35 years and wondered, “Why does the owl symbolize wisdom?”

The beautiful Barn Owl is one of the most widespread of all landbirds, found on six continents and many islands
The beautiful Barn Owl is one of the most widespread of all landbirds, found on six continents and many islands

Wisest of Us All

Anyone who grew up in the 1970s remembers the Tootsie Pop commercial.

The boy wants to know how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?”

Mr. Turtle proclaims, “Ask Mr. Owl for he’s the wisest of us all.”

I’ve decided to do some research and determine if owls are wise or if this was just a pop culture myth.

Smart Attributes

The wise owl appears in everything from The Iliad, to the Harry Potter Series to Winnie the Pooh.

There is no denying owls are extraordinary hunters with sharp beaks, and strong claws called talons that they use to catch their prey.

Owls are nocturnal, meaning these birds do most of their hunting on the night shift when other raptors, such as hawks, eagles, and falcons are sleeping.

So that means less competition.

Pictured is Magma, a beautiful red morph Eastern Screen Owl and she weighs around weighs around 5.8 ounces which is he equivalent to ½ a can of soda
Pictured is Magma, a beautiful red morph Eastern Screen Owl and she weighs around weighs around 5.8 ounces which is he equivalent to ½ a can of soda

READ: Connecticut Artist Soars to New Heights with Majestic Owl Series

Tube-shaped Eyes

But what owls are most known for is their large eyes.

An owl’s eyes are so large that they can’t even move in their sockets the way the human eye can. Instead, the owl must turn their heads around.

The eyes of an owl are not true eyeballs.

The bird’s tube-shaped eyes are entirely immobile, providing a binocular vision which focuses on their prey and boosts depth perception.

The Short-eared owl lives in open terrain, such as prairies and marshes. It hunts by flying low over the fields, with buoyant, floppy wingbeats, looking like a giant moth
The Short-eared owl lives in open terrain, such as prairies and marshes. It hunts by flying low over the fields, with buoyant, floppy wingbeats, looking like a giant moth

Asymmetrical Ears

These beautiful birds have a specialized hearing.

Many owl species have asymmetrical ears located at different heights on the owl’s head.

That means one ear that is slightly higher on its head than its other ear. This helps sounds reach the owl’s ears at different times so they can pinpoint the location of sounds in multiple dimensions.

Most owls don’t hunt just by sight.

Owls hunt by sound.

The feathers around an owl’s face collect sound the same way a satellite dish collects signal from space.

The Snowy Owl is a large, powerful owl of the high Arctic tundra, colored for camouflage during northern winters
The Snowy Owl is a large, powerful owl of the high Arctic tundra, colored for camouflage during northern winters

Owl Camouflage

These birds have brilliant camouflaging plumage often light in colors, such as tan, brown, gray and white allowing them to blend in with tree trunks and branches that help them catch their prey.

So do all these attributes add up to make them wise?

The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a tiny owl with a catlike face, oversized head, and bright yellow eyes. Pictured is Mr. Higgins from Christine’s Critters in Weston, CT. What he doesn’t have in size he makes up for in attitude.
The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a tiny owl with a catlike face, oversized head, and bright yellow eyes. Pictured is Mr. Higgins from Christine’s Critters in Weston, CT. What he doesn’t have in size he makes up for in attitude

Contrary to Popular Belief Owls are Not So Smart

Science shows that owls are probably not any smarter than other birds.

One study found they may be significantly worse at problem-solving than other big-brained birds like crows and parrots.

Great Gray owls repeatedly failed a simple cognitive test that involved pulling a string to get a treat.

Another study found that some owls practice a primitive form of tool use.

Burrowing owls have been observed using animal dung to lure dung beetles to their burrows where they feast on the bugs.

But this finding still doesn’t mean owls are “wise” according to humans standards.

Burrowing owls can be found in grasslands, rangelands, agricultural areas, deserts, or any other open dry area with low vegetation
Burrowing owls can be found in grasslands, rangelands, agricultural areas, deserts, or any other open dry area with low vegetation

The owl’s nocturnal habits and silent flight bring an air of mystery to these birds, and they are well-adapted hunters.

But when measuring intelligence owl have tiny brains in proportion to their body size and are less trainable than crows, hawks, parrots, and pigeons.

These birds can be taught to retrieve objects and memorize simple tasks.

Although owls are depicted as being extremely intelligent, most owls can’t be trained to do the same simple tasks.

The Barred Owl is a non-migratory bird and lives a sedentary life. In its lifetime, it may move a maximum of 6 miles from its original location
The Barred Owl is a non-migratory bird and lives a sedentary life. In its lifetime, it may move a maximum of 6 miles from its original location

The Impression of High Intelligence

So where does this perception that owls are smart come from?

People think owls are smart for the same reason why they think people who are intelligent wear glasses.

It’s the owl’s bigger-than-usual-eyes conveying the impression of high intelligence.

The Barn Owl is often heard at night over farmland or marshes

But owls don’t have to be the smartest birds to be appreciated.

Owls are a combination of attributes that capture the attention and curiosity of bird watchers.

They’re enigmatic, beautiful, mysterious, intriguing, fierce, spooky and just adorable.

Owls are nature’s gift for us to love and enjoy.

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  1. Measuring their intelligence by how much they can be trained for human needs/desires is only one measure of intelligence, and a rather anthropocentric one at that. As our ancestors were more keen observers of nature than we modern humans are, I’m sure there was a reason for their association with wisdom that is beyond simple modern scientific deduction. When I try to embody what I know about how owls hunt, it’s a very meditative feeling. To be entirely still, and totally tuned into your senses, the heightened awareness and focus that comes with operating in the dark- it seems not unlike the enlightened states of consciousnesses we try to reach through meditation practices. Perhaps that is a reason for their association with wisdom?

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