There’s no one “owl”—in fact there are 250 different species of the birds, and they truly come in all different shapes and sizes, from 5 inches tall to nearly 3 feet. But even the little ones are born predators with sharp talons and beaks they use to catch and eat small animals like insects, rodents, and reptiles. You probably already know that owls are usually active at night, and can turn their heads almost completely around; but here are some owl facts that’ll likely surprise you.
Owls don’t have eyeballs, they have eye “tubes”
Eyeballs are round, right? Not always! Owls’ eye “balls” are actually shaped like long tubes, according to the National Geographic Society. These eye tubes can’t move around like those of humans and many other animals—they’re held fast in place by bones called sclerotic rings. Like these other nocturnal animals, owls have incredible eyesight and can see very well in the dark. But because they can’t move their eye “balls,” they must move their entire head to look around.
They swallow their food whole…
…and then barf up the bones, fur, and other indigestible parts later in tightly packed “owl pellets.” These pellets can be as big as 4 inches long, depending on the size of the owl, according to the Seattle Audubon. These clumps are usually black and shiny when first brought up, then dry to a gray color. Dissecting owl pellets is actually a popular elementary-school science experiment, and you can even order them online!
They’re food-stashers, like squirrels
Owls swallow their prey whole, but when they don’t have the time to do it right away, they “cache” food animals like mice in tree branches, piles of rocks, or holes in trees, according to the Owl Research Institute. Some owls eat mostly insects, while others like frogs, lizards, rodents, birds, and even skunks.
A group of owls is a “parliament”
Different groups of animals are called different things: a “murder” of crows, a herd of cattle, a pod of whales. Anyone interested in owl facts should know this little tidbit: When it comes to owls, a group is called a “parliament.” Not because a scientist declared it should be that way, but because that’s what novelist C.S. Lewis called a group of the birds in The Chronicles of Narnia. “A Parliament of Owls” is the title of Chapter 4 in the volume of the series called The Silver Chair.
Some owls have mismatched ears
Some owls have tufts of feathers on their heads that look like the ears of a fox or cat—but those aren’t their ears. Owl ears are actually just slits on the sides of their heads, per the Owl Research Institute. At the opening of the ear canal is a flap of skin called a conch, that the bird can open with small muscles around its face. Many owls have asymmetrical ears located at different heights on each side of their head—this difference lets them better judge exactly where sounds are coming from.
They’re silent fliers
Owls can swoop down on prey in near-complete silence, according to the Audubon Society. Their wings are so large compared to their bodies that they can fly very slowly, and specially shaped feathers direct air so easily and smoothly over their wings that they create barely any sound. Although there have been cases of owls swooping down and snatching hats (and yes, clumps of hair) off of people’s heads, they’re not as dangerous to humans as these more-innocent looking animals that are surprisingly fierce.
They can twist their heads 270°
Because owls can’t move their eyes, they must move their entire heads to spot danger or prey around them. (They can’t spin their heads a complete 360 degrees, but they can manage nearly that—a full 270 degrees.) In another animal, this huge neck-swivel would cut off blood flow to the creature’s brain, but owls have a specially adapted blood-pooling system that gathers enough blood to keep things moving, according to to the Owl Research Institute.
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Owls aren’t great nest-builders
Birds like eagles, crows, and hawks are excellent nest-makers. But not owls. Instead of building their own homes, some owls move into empty nests left behind by other birds, according to the Owl Research Institute. Others make their roosts in holes in tree trunks or cliffs, or the rafters of barns or empty buildings. Two kinds of owls—snowy owls and short-eared owls—do make their own homesteads, by scooping out shallow holes in the ground.
They don’t all say, “whooo”
Here’s a surprising owl fact for you: Many big owls do hoot in that typical “whooo” way, but the hoot of the large Barred Owl sounds like a dog barking. Little owls generally “toot” or make other noises: The small species known as the Northern Saw-whet makes a high-pitched toot that sounds a bit like the horn of a little tugboat.
You can hang out with owls in Japanese “owl cafes”
There are a handful of “cafes” in Japan where guests can sit at little tables and get a close-up look at these beautiful birds. In one such spot, according to news reports, the owls are so tame you can stroke their feathers. However, like these other creatures that shouldn’t be treated as pets, owls are wild animals, and shouldn’t be in such close contact with humans, according to the Audubon Society. Conservationists and bird experts say this type of close interaction with humans is stressful and unhealthy for the owls, so think twice before heading there.