Bird Intelligence -- The Owl
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Human fascination with the mysterious owl goes back 30,000 years to the earliest cave paintings.  Sad to say, most owls actually fall into the lower range of bird intelligence.  However, they still deserve plaudits for a different reason -- their amazingly sharp senses.

The owl's enormous eyes deliver excellent stereoscopic vision even in very dim light.  Unlike human eyeballs, they are fixed tubes that cannot be moved except by turning the head.  The pupils can dilate or constrict over a wide range -- giving the bird good vision during night or day.

Even more remarkable is the owl's keen hearing.  The ear-tufts you see are strictly ornamental.  However, the owl has large external ears buried in the feathers on each side of its head that can accurately locate a sound by comparing its sharpness and the fractions of a millisecond delay between the two sides.  Because the ears are located at different heights, the owl can also judge the vertical elevation of a sound.


Combined with almost silent flight, the owl's vision and hearing make it a perfectly adapted predator for small nocturnal animals in the forest environment.  After digestion, the bird regurgitates "owl pellets" -- macabre mixtures of the tiny bones from previous meals.  One species of burrowing owl collects animal dung to use as bait for attracting tasty beetles -- suggesting some Owls might be smart enough to use tools.

Nevertheless, most owls are dimwits.  The screech owl pictured above accidentally blundered into my car one snowy Christmas Eve and briefly knocked itself unconscious.  This photo shows it sitting inside the trunk of my car a short time later, looking rather discombobulated.  Fortunately it soon recovered enough to fly silently away to resume its night-time duties.  Since these owls can live 15 years, it may be catching a mouse somewhere in Tennessee even as you read these words.

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Owl behavior can be unpredictable! Here is a letter from Farrell D, a security expert in Victoria, British Columbia Canada. Fortunately after more attempts at capture, the owl reconsidered his decision to live in a garage a few days after this message..

Hello, I'm writing from Western Canada where we operate a shopping center with an underground parking garage because an Owl, (pictured in attached files), has either become trapped or has chosen to take up residence in said garage. I have read some of the information on your website and was wondering If you could answer some questions for me. The owl is very wary of us approaching it and can still fly from sprinkler line to sprinkler line and thus far has been impossible to catch. There are exits close to where it has chosen to perch where daylight is clearly visible so I am unsure whether it does not want to leave or does not know how. We had an owl in the exact same spot a few weeks ago and managed to net and release it in the trees across the street, so it may be the same bird and is wise to our capture attempts. It has been in the garage for 3 days now and there are no rodents about for it to eat as we have pest control stations everywhere. I am worried for its well-being. Do you have any advice for us? Do owls get trapped like this frequently? Is it more likely it is here of its own volition? Thank you for any advice and assistance.

  Owl in Garage

Betty N. in Santa Cruz, California relates another story of a Christmas Eve owl encounter, including a photo -- and a link to even more amazing pictures!

On Christmas Eve 2011 I had an owl slam head on into my car while driving home on a freeway in the hills. It hit the windshield with such force it sounded like a baseball bat hit my car. I only knew it was an owl by the white dusty and very eerie imprint it left. I felt very sad by this and wondered why it hit head-on like it did. This is the second time an owl has hit my car. The first time the owl swooped down and just the wing caught the car. Thankfully we saw it fly away. This second hit I am certain killed the owl. I find this very odd that it would happen twice and am left wondering how this could happen. It was as though this owl had a death wish.

Betty N.
Santa Cruz Mountains Ca



Owl Impact


At least one person with raptor rehabilitation experience was willing to stick up for Owl Intelligence below:


I am emailing you in regards to your web page about owls on birdminds.com. On the page you state, "most owls are dimwits. The screech owl pictured above accidentally blundered into my car..." This sounds as if you are suggesting that the owl hit your car out of stupidity, which is not true.

Most injured owls are hit by cars but it has nothing to do with stupidity; quite the contrary, it has to do with the fact that they are smart, and efficient predators. Owls realize that the roadside is a good place to hunt (because our apple cores, candy wrappers, and other assorted garbage attracts all sorts of tasty critters). Once an owl spots its prey it will site both its eyes on it one at a time to accommodate for parallax. After the owl has sited in on its prey it will not take its eyes off of it until it has hit it or missed it. The owl is so focused on its prey that it does not even see a car come around the bend. The fact that so many of these birds are hit by cars is a consequence of their understanding and hunting ability, not their stupidity.


Sam Whited
Georgia Institute of Technology
Physics Undergraduate swhited@gatech.edu


On the other hand, here are some observations from Dave at a Raptor Centre in the U.K.:

I would agree with those that say owls are not exactly the Einsteins of the bird world.

Having worked in an animal centre and watched the behaviour of owls it occurs to me that they are efficient, programmed killers. This compares directly the computer, which is an efficient, programmed calculating engine which has no intelligence. It will carry out the same series of actions over and over again regardless changes in the surrounding environment - such as cars etc.

I would compare the owl's hunting action with that of the Harris Hawk - and find it wanting. The Harris Hawk hunts in pairs or triplets, one chasing, say, a rabbit to the others who wait in ambush. That shows intelligence and planning, that can be modified to suit circumstances, over mere repeated observation and action.  I will say that they were the only birds of prey at the centre that "played", pouncing on leaves blowing by in the wind. Play is essential for learning coordination skills etc. as a youngster, but most birds (and most people unfortunately) seem to drop it when they mature.

A joke that went aound the centre was that owls had four brain cells: one for hunting, one for eating, one for sex and one for sleeping.




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