The wise old owl.
Greek symbol of knowledge, perched upon the shoulder of Athena, goddess of wisdom.
Shrewd keeper of the age-old lore: How many licks does it take to get to the tootsie-roll center of a Tootsie Pop?
Sorry to burst your bubble, everyone. In real life, owls are dumb as doorknobs.
How Did We Get Here?
Granted, the PR for owls hasn’t been uniform across the board. In ancient Rome, they were harbingers of disaster. In India, an owl might symbolize incompetence or protection. In Native American stories, owls are untrustworthy and equated with evil medicine men, while some Egyptians feared them as signs of bad fortune.
Despite this mixed bag of allegory, the tale of the wise owl is perhaps the most well-known, especially in Western storytelling. From the Duolingo owl to Winnie the Pooh’s sage friend, from Blathers and his Animal Crossing museum to that long-winded Kaepora Gaebora in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, clever owls permeate media. Maybe one even appears in your story?
Today’s post isn’t to put down any of those tropes. After all, symbology has a tendency to grow a life of its own. However, we all deserve to know why owls don’t live up to their lofty reputation — because there are actually some pretty compelling biological reasons this group of birds forsake the brainy route.
Master Hunters, Not Thinkers
Evolutionarily speaking, owls are made for doing one thing and doing it well: hunting at night. How does this put them at a disadvantage in the intellect department?
All the Better to Hear You With
Human hearing is decent at parsing whether a sound comes from our left or right. Our brains accomplish this by processing tiny differences in sound arrival time at the left versus right ear — if the left ear registers a sound first, that sound probably originated from our left. What about determining how high up versus down a sound is? A dog accomplishes this by tilting its head, placing its ears at different heights to better calculate where the sound is coming from.
Owls went for the built-in model of sound localization.
Many owls have asymmetrical ears, meaning those ears are not only on the left and right side of the head, but physically located at different heights within the skull.
This ear setup, combined with a feathered facial disc that funnels sounds toward the ears — humans can accomplish a similar effect by cupping hands behind our ears to hear better — gives owls exceptionally precise and sensitive hearing. A great gray owl can hear a mouse squeak from half a mile away, and an experiment with blindfolded barn owls showed the birds could capture a mouse in a room by simply hearing its heartbeat.
Jeepers Creepers, Where’d You Get Those Peepers?
So owls are basically Daredevil, and they can catch a meal using zero senses other than hearing. There’s just one little hitch in the strategy for going all-in on a single sense:
Trees. They don’t tend to squeak all that often, and man, is it a bummer to fly into one at night.
To account for the hazards of their environment, owls also have incredible eyesight, especially at night. In an experiment, several species of owl were able to see prey in lighting conditions as low as 0.000,000,73 foot-candles, about the equivalent of a human seeing a mouse by the light of a match a mile away.
How do owls see so well? Their eyes are big. Like really, hugely, comically oversized relative to their head. Owl eyes are so large, in fact, that they physically can’t move within the skull.
Interaction break: without moving your head, look to the left. Now, look to the right. Humans can do this because our eyeballs can rotate a little bit in their sockets. Owl eyes can’t. These humongous peepers are physically locked in place by large, bony tubes called sclerotic rings.
To look to the left, an owl has to physically turn its head left.
On a side note, an owl having to move its head to see isn’t such an inconvenience, since their necks have great rotational range. A neck with fourteen vertebrae (compared to seven in humans) allows owls to rotate their heads 270 degrees — not the full 360 some tall tales claim, but still impressive.
Owls also have an uncanny skill for keeping their line of sight stable and on target, no matter how their neck or body might rotate. Some old-school experimental video demonstrates this quite well — and makes a great remix.
-3 to Wisdom
Now we know why and how owls hear and see super good.
What’s that? This was a post about owl intelligence? Right, right.
Unfortunately, in nature you can never have it all. Evolutionary tradeoffs mean that being incredibly good at one thing often comes at the expense of something else. Owls put all their points into sight and hearing, leaving not much left for brainpower.
Let’s start with the physical limitations. Those absurdly large eyes? They take up so much room in the owl’s skull, there’s not much space left for a brain. Relative to some other birds their size, owl brains are just flat out tinier, and smaller brain size means less processing capacity.
The double-whammy comes from how owls have allocated their mental capacity. Of an already small brain, about 75% is dedicated to processing the sensory input from those stellar eyes and ears, leaving a measly 25% for … everything else.
You read that right, folks. Owls are the jocks of the bird world, all-in for the physical attributes, but when it comes to anything more complex than sitting upright, they’ll have to copy off the smart kid — and in my personal experience with owls, even the sitting upright bit is pushing it sometimes.
So What Birds Are Smart?
Maybe that owl isn’t your best pick for a sage old mentor. There are still plenty of birds that possess impressive intellects. Some are even capable of cognition on par with the great apes!
In general, our smartest birds are those that are social. This is another point against the owl. For a solitary hunter, life doesn’t have to be more complicated than perch, fluff feathers, eat mouse. In contrast, birds in social groups have to navigate complex vocalizations, behaviors, and hierarchies.
Parrots are some of the smartest birds in the world. Pet parrots are well-known for mimicking words and getting up to silly hijinks, but more formal studies have shown parrots capable of performing cognitive tasks better than 5-year-old humans. Alex, a famously intelligent African gray parrot who unfortunately passed away in 2007, could use over 100 words to identify objects and colors, and he could even perform basic math. The Alex Foundation continues research on parrot intelligence in his name.
Our other brainy bird group is the corvids, which include ravens, crows, and jays. If you enjoy popular science books, Bernd Heinrich’s Mind of The Raven is an insightful and surprisingly intimate study of not only the puzzle-solving abilities of ravens, but also their individual personalities and social lives.
In the wild, corvids are well-known for using tools, and have even been documented building multi-part tools out of useless individual components. Corvids also barter better than apes when subjected to the same experiment, and they can solve water-displacement puzzles better than five-year-old humans.
That final article is titled “Crows understand water displacement better than your kid.” Just appreciate that with me for a moment.
At the end of the day, is bird-brained an insult, or a compliment? For the owl, unfortunately, basic biology doesn’t match up with the fables of wisdom. You could say “to heck with it!” and keep that sage owl in your story, if only for tradition’s sake (or because they’re fluffy and cute, I won’t judge). But perhaps you’ll consider sharing the spotlight with a parrot or corvid, our real bird geniuses!
Looking for more writing tips?
What the heck is a biome, and how can you build real-life or fictional habitats on your pages that feel like living settings?
Fiction or non-fiction. Fantasy realism or alien worlds. Knowing some basics of biology can help make your world believable — or not!