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How Smart Are Owls? (It’s NOT What You Think)


In ancient Greek mythology, an owl is a sign of wisdom and focus. You can find the depiction of Greek gods holding an owl in their hands, in the paintings though they didn’t know how smart are owls. In modern behavior science, the person who tends to stay awake late at night are called “night owl.” 

In a recent study by psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, night owls are more likely to be intelligent than early birds (Morning person)(1). That’s how the idea of owl’s smartness goes on even in the modern days.

If you want to attract owls to your yard then read this guide here.

How smart are owls?

Few of the bird’s species are considered smarter than others. But that depends on how we define smartness for the birds. There are two broader classes; carrying out a certain task in a capable way, and the other is problem-solving. Owls are incredible birds of prey when it comes to hunting small forest animals. 

But are owls wise? They have very keen vision and hearing sense unmatched in the family of birds. 

But when it comes to the brain, things get a little complicated. About 75% of owl’s brain is devoted to the senses of sight and hears (2). It leaves owls with 25% the brain to process those data and make decisions. Similarly, owls are the master of stealth movement. In one experiment, it took a flight from one location to another without creating any sensation. Even the sensitivity of microphones didn’t notice it.

But some consider it is not a good idea to compare owls with other smart birds. Since owls are solitary birds compared to crow, corvids, and parrots, it is hard to find common ground. Now when it comes to cognitive abilities, corvids are the smartest in the group. They have shown signs of using tools, deception, and memory.

Related: Why do owls hoot?

Owl intelligence

Problem-solving tests on owl’s intelligence show that they are not good at doing certain brain-related tasks. In one particular study, six out of twelve owls pulled the string (3). These tasks are of nature that doesn’t require prior training in animals. Other birds can perform these tasks easily. In the above experiment, few owls tried to pull strings in odd ways. Few suggest that this behavior might be lack understanding of the underlying physics of the objects in owls.

Fun fact, did you know that a group of owls is called a parliament?

But owls aren’t that dimwits as they might be considered. Another study was conducted to find how useful tools can be in wildlife. Dung beetles are the favorite prey for owls. This study showed that owls brought dung near their nest to attract maggots and beetles and used to feed on them. 

This use of bait to lure its prey is common in many animals, but this case is a little different. Owls are different from other birds as they are nocturnal and rely on their instincts. The way they locate their prey and then actually going for kill is somehow fascinating for scientists. 

In the Journal of Experimental Biology, Terry T. Takahashi explains how owl uses the technique of sound localization to spot his prey accurately (4). In the night when the vision is not perfect, the use of sound to prey shows how intelligent owl can be.

If owls have become a problem then read how to get rid of owls safely.

Why are owls considered wise?

Why we commonly quote as wise as an owl? Owls are among the few creatures viewed so differently in different parts of the world. Many cultures have contradictory views about it. The origin of an owl as an intelligent creature can be traced back to pre-historic times. When human beings relied on hunting for their survival, they considered it to be the only strength. The owls are sharp hunters and have strong instincts, that’s why they took it for the wisdom of these creatures. 

In ancient Greek societies, they were the symbol of wisdom due to the size of the eyes. In this modern world, wearing vision glasses is a sign of intellect among students and academia. Because glasses resemble the big sized eyes of the owl. Ancient Egyptians were fearful of owls and were the sign of bad luck. 

The Romans are among the most feared one if we talk about owls. They considered it the symbol of disaster, defeat, and famine. The flight of owl over Roman soldiers were often associated with defeat. When a Roman army was annihilated in the desert of Charrhea, present-day Iraq, historian tells that they were warned by the owl. The death of many famous figures in Roman history, like Julius Ceaser, Augustus, and Commodus, were all predicted by owls.

In the indo-subcontinent, an owl is the sign of unearned wealth. If someone is incompetent and has collected huge wealth, that person is compared with an owl. At the same time, in other parts of India, it is linked with protection. In Native American culture, it is the sign of death, bad luck, and death. The Japanese, on the other hand, associate owl with charm, good luck, and protection from suffering.

Are owls smarter than crows and ravens?

It is not a good practice to compare owls with other smart birds. Crows, ravens, and parrots are more active when it comes to cognitive behaviors. These birds apply the concept of team-work in a few situations while owl act as a lone gunman. Owls operate in the dark that makes them special in a few things. They make use of their senses rather than their brains. 

On bird’s intelligence scale, owls lie somewhat in-between. They can’t perform certain tasks designed by zoologists to check the bird’s wisdom. But on the other hand, corvids, ravens, and crows are very active in a problem-solving situation. Ravens will use tools for certain tasks. They use multiple levels of tools, for example, using tool A to improvise tool B to carry out task C. They save food for rainy days. They have a strong memory and will remember the person who tries to harm them.

Parrots, on the other hand, are very handy in uttering words. The verbal capabilities of parrots are well-known. They can manage to remember a few hundred words and will speak it in one go. They also use tools to scratch their old feathers. In the Amazon jungle, they live in colonies carrying out things in the team. A parrot can count things when trained for it and even in some ask for help.

2 thoughts on “How Smart Are Owls? (It’s NOT What You Think)”

  1. Avatar

    Wow, I am really impressed to learn that owls also uses sound localization to find its prey. As a navigation and positioning researcher, I will definitely study this technique and see if we can learn more from these amazing birds.

    Thank you so much Garth for bringing this amazing article. Have a nice day!!

  2. Avatar

    Hi thanks for sharing I really enjoyed reading!! I’m not sure what it is but it seems to be every time I turn around there is an owl. It’s like they follow me all the time they started following me when I was pregnant with my 1st daughter and have continued to do so up til now. I don’t know what it means or if it means anything at all. I have moved houses and everywhere I go they are close by often at night they wake me up.

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