This superb owl can see with its eyes closed

For those who prefer fauna over football, these birds of prey do not disappoint.

By Liz Langley
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:37 BST
The oriental bay owl (seen at Penang Bird Park) is a master at camouflage.

The oriental bay owl (seen at Penang Bird Park) is a master at camouflage.

Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

If the only sport you really like is wordplay, you might want to sidestep the Super Bowl for the Superb Owl.

Owls are superb, from those haunting calls to spinning heads to soulful eyes.

What else contributes to the bird’s mystique, and what are some of the secrets behind their charisma?

Vote for the most superb owl

Rotating heads

Owl eyes are so big they can’t move in their sockets—which is why they need that Exorcist-style head rotation, all thanks to an intricate system.

For one, their skulls sit on a single pivot point—allowing for more movement than our two-pivot points—and they have 14 neck bones to our seven.

Blood vessels in an owl’s neck are larger than in other animals and get bigger as they go up into the head, so “they don’t twist off their blood supply,” says James Duncan, author of the 2018 book Owls of the World.

Radar face

Owls’ round faces aren’t just cute—they act like satellite dishes.

The back of their facial disc has overlapping layers of stiff, dense feathers “tight enough to form a solid surface and direct sound to the ear, like our hands when we cup them around our ears to hear better,” Duncan says.

“By manipulating the shape of its facial disc, the owl can direct those sounds right into the ear.” (Learn more about the owl’s super-hearing.)

This exceptional hearing is how great gray owls, which have the biggest facial discs of any owl, can detect prey even under 18 inches of snow.

A snowy owl flies over Maine. The cold-dwelling species breed on the Arctic tundra.

Photograph by Robbie George, Nat Geo Imaga Collection

Owls with smaller facial discs, like the Arctic’s snowy owl, are more likely to hunt by sight than by sound.

Master manipulators

Oriental bay owls of southern Asia can maneuver their facial discs to create the appearance of horns, Duncan notes.

This could be for camouflage—to break up their owly outline—or to express emotion. The oriental bay owl’s huge black eyes also have white lids with slits that allow them to literally see with their eyes closed.

The northern white-faced scops of Africa, nicknamed the transformer owl, is especially dramatic in its ability to either make itself bigger or disappear, depending on the situation.

The barn owl is one of the most widely distributed birds on Earth, occuring in North America, Africa, and Europe.

Photograph by Niels Kooyman, Minden Pictures/ Nat Geo Image Collection

For instance, the birds can compress their plumage to appear smaller and squint to blend their feathers into surrounding trees, Duncan says.

Or, to intimidate aggressors, they can turn into “supersize owls,” spreading their wings and widening their eyes.

The great gray owl of North America doesn’t have to fake it. They’re the tallest species, at nearly three feet. (The smallest is the elf owl of the U.S. Southwest and central Mexico, which measures about five inches long.)

The North American species, which is endangered in California, is also surprisingly resilient. A massive wildfire that burned about a quarter of the species’ territory in 2013 did not do major harm to the birds, according to a new study in The Condor: Ornithological Applications. The owls are still nesting in the same forests, and their population remains stable.

Creative decorators

A burrowing owl sits at the entrance to its burrow in Florida.

Photograph by Tom Vezo, Minden Pictures/Nat Geo Image Collection

Rather than their looks, Florida burrowing owls transform their underground homes.

Allison Smith, a graduate student in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida, says rural owls living on ranches will decorate the burrow and its environs with cow and coyote poop, while more upscale urban owls opt for dog poop and garbage. All will incorporate prey items and other natural objects.

This dung decor could repel predators, attract delicious bugs, or be a courtship ritual, Smith says. (Watch a mother owl take on a snake—and win.)

“I found one burrow last year with over 50 cigarette butts at it, and another with the legs from 72 frogs,” Smith says.

Now that’s a romantic gesture.

Have a question about the weird and wild world? Tweet me or find me on Facebook.


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