Owls are intriguing birds that are embedded into folklore and mythology.
Owls belong to the order Strigiformes, and there are two large families; the true owl family Strigidae and the Barn owl family Tytonidae. In total, over 200 species of owls are divided between some 27 genera. Owls live on every continent except Antarctica, occupying habitats ranging from arid deserts to dense, wet mangroves and barren mountainous regions.
In the West, at least, owls are often considered smart, intelligent, or wise. But is there really any scientific grounding for this? Or are humans merely superimposing anthropomorphic qualities onto owls?
Here, we’re going to answer the question in detail: are owls smart?
Owls are generally not “smart,” at least when being compared to the most intelligent members of the avian world - the corvids and parrots. Despite their large heads, an owl’s skull is small compared to their bodies, and their cognitive abilities aren’t impressive based on a handful of studies.
But, the question is; how do we define “smart” when discussing birds and other animals? For example, we know that owls are amongst the very first groups of birds to occupy a diverse range of habitats in the Paleogene era, some 60 million years ago.
Since then, owls have remained a distinct and diverse lineage that occupies practically every habitat on the planet - they can’t be that stupid, then!
Of course, there is much more to learn about owl intelligence and the various symbolism accompanying these elusive creatures. Read on to find out!
When it comes to actual intelligence, owls aren't believed to be one of the 'smartest' species - however, they are capable and possess some incredible behaviors
Owls are not always considered intelligent, but the description of owls as wise and intelligent is pretty compelling in the USA, UK, and other Western countries.
Human curiosity in owls started thousands of years ago. Owls possess something that humans do not - keen senses at night.
When the night falls, owls make their presence known with characteristic hoots, shrieks, and other unique calls. If you catch a rare glance of an owl in its natural habitat, its eyes are distinctive, and its quiet, deft movement is striking.
Owls keep watch of the night - they see things that most animals don’t. Their nocturnal behavior, combined with their cryptic plumage, large eyes, and keen hunting talents, create the image of an intelligent bird.
This is partly why the Ancient Greek Athenians associated owls with wisdom and knowledge - they believed owls saw an “inner light” that humans could not.
As a result, owls were protected in the Acropolis in Athens and became heavily associated with the Greek goddess Athena. Likewise, owls were viewed as a bridge between the surface world and the underworld in Norse culture. They were associated with Hawthorn (Huathe), the tree of the underworld, and Katyogle, a goddess of wisdom.
So, owl intelligence isn’t entirely a modern invention. But, owls are certainly not seen as intelligent in every culture around the world.
A lot of the associations of owls being wise comes from myths and folklore
The unique form and behaviors of owls captured the imagination of the Ancient Greeks, where some of the earliest accounts of owls as intelligent creatures originate.
Owls accompany the Greek goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and Minerva, which is Athena’s incarnation in Roman mythology. The precise reason why owls became associated with Athena is mysterious and may have originated in Old Europe sometime between the Neolithic and Bronze Eras.
There may also have been significant numbers of owls in Greece at the time, and they almost certainly inhabited temples. The Ancient Greeks believed these owls could see an “inner light” that enabled them to keep watch at night - any owls inhabiting the Acropolis in Athens were protected and revered.
Owls in the Bible are often connected to negative experiences and emotions, such as destruction, loneliness, and desolation.
By the Middle Ages in Europe, owls were predominantly viewed as the harbingers of death. The shriek of a Barn owl in the night was considered demonic, and an encounter with an owl considered a symbol of doom.
Native Americans also frequently viewed owls as being linked with death but with generally positive connotations.
To the Apaches, owls generally signify death, whereas the Hopis saw the Burrowing owl as the guardian of spirits as they passed into the underworld. Some considered the owl to be the bearer of a human soul, thus meaning they were worthy of protection.
Mojave, Newuks, Navajos, and Sierras also saw owls as being symbolic of death, with some writings speaking of owls’ foresight and prescience. Owls were viewed as spiritual creatures that could move between the surface world and the underworld.
Burrowing Owls were considered as guardians of spirits by Apaches
Further, owls are often seen as symbols of death in African culture. The sighting of an owl is linked with misfortune, grief, and death.
There is a lively trade of owl body parts in some parts of Africa - witch doctors, shamans and spirit healers market them as possessing magical or healing properties.
In Hindu folklore, owls are generally considered foolish or bad luck. They’re the spiritual vehicle of Lakshimi, the goddess of wealth, and thousands are sacrificed for Dussehra and Diwali.
The motive for these sacrifices is that when Lakshimi showers wealth upon your home, killing owls will mean she cannot take that wealth with her when she leaves, thus leaving it at the home. To kill more owls is to accumulate more good luck.
However, in some Indian and Hindu subcultures, owls are associated with the sacred forest, wisdom, and good luck.
Tawny Owl coming in to land at night
Literature describing owls as wise is not limited to the modern era.
For example, owls were described as wise by the Greek writer Aesop, in Aesop’s Fables. The Owl and the Birds reads, “the Owl is a very wise bird,” and in the Owl and the Grasshopper, the owl outsmarts and eats a loud and annoying grasshopper.
Owls in much of Europe and Western literature are possibly considered intelligent because of Ancient Greek folklore and Aesop’s Fables. However, this isn’t straightforward, as owls were more frequently seen as bad omens or heralds of death and misfortune pre-16th and 17th centuries, as we can see from Shakespeare and other writers who refer to owls as omens of death and misfortune.
Perhaps one of the most famous owls in recent movies is Harry Potters' Snowy Owl, Hedwig
Both owls and crows are very successful groups of birds that have thrived on Earth for millions of years. Therefore, any comparison between one and the other naturally falls short of describing the tremendous abilities of both birds!
With that said, when it comes to sheer cognitive ability and intelligence, crows are amongst the most intelligent of all birds and some of the most intelligent animals in the world. Crows are capable of high-level abstract thought - they have a theory of self and can even picture themselves in the third person.
Moreover, crows can solve advanced problems similar to that of a 7-year-old child. Considering that a crow’s brain is smaller than a walnut, its intelligence is even more remarkable.
It’s sometimes said that owls are stupid or perform very poorly in animal cognition tests, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. Studies have found that over half of an owl’s brain is dedicated to its vision, which is superior to most animals. Owls can judge the distance, speed, and weight of prey in near-pitch black. Their night vision is often superior to a crow, who has to rely on resourcefulness rather than hunting to survive.
The hunting talents of owls extend beyond catching prey at night. For example, the Little owl stashes meat to cultivate maggots and larvae as a food source, and Burrowing owls use dung as bait to attract dung beetles. Owls are certainly capable of intelligent behaviors.
So, while owls are not smarter than crows in most senses, their brains are still powerful. Owls possess different adaptations to crows, but both species are successful.
Little Owls stash meat to cultivate maggots and larvae as a food source
Owls are not known for their excellent memory, but many species do roost and nest in the same location each year after migration. So, their memories are not any worse than most species of migratory birds.
Owls have strong short-term location memory. When they hear their prey move or make a sound, they can build a 3D mental map of where it came from, predicting movement even when they cannot see their target very well.
As a result, owls have hunting success rates of up to 85%, which far exceeds practically all other families of raptors.
All species of owls have their own niches and adaptations.
Owls range from the colossal Eagle-owls to the tiny Little and Pygmy owls and inhabitat practically every habitat ranging from the Arctic, in the case of the Snowy owl, to the desert, in the case of the Burrowing owl.
Owls should perhaps be considered highly specialized and talented rather than intelligent, but it’s pretty difficult to define and measure animal intelligence.
Close up of a perched Pygmy Owl
Owls have long been viewed as a symbol of death, with both positive and negative connotations.
For example, in Ancient Rome, owls were seen as a sign of recent or impending doom. Owls appeared before the murder of Caesar and the deaths of Augustus and Marcus Aurelius. In Nepali and Hindu legend, the calls of some species of owls symbolize the capture of a spirit that has recently departed this world.
In Medieval European and Christian folklore, owls are heavily associated with death. To hear the shriek or call of an owl in the night is a bad omen and is often linked with destructive events in the Bible.
In Native American culture, owls are messengers from the next world. Some Native American tribes saw owls as a positive messenger, symbolizing safe transit to the underworld. Others saw owls as harbingers of doom.
Eagle Owl coming in to land
Owls have a mixed reputation in human folklore and mythology. In many modern cultures, owls are viewed as lucky, wise, or otherwise associated with positive emotions and experiences.
Modern Western spiritualism nearly always views the owl as a positive symbol, suggesting that an encounter with one is a sign of knowledge, wisdom, wealth, prosperity, and luck. In modern Japan, owls are similarly viewed as a good luck charm.
However, owls have often been linked to bad luck across Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, at least. In fact, owls were frequently persecuted across Medieval Europe for their link to witchcraft. In Africa and parts of Asia, owls symbolize death and doom to this day.
In Europe and much of Asia, the Bible’s depiction of owls as bad luck charms or symbols of death probably shaped public perception of the birds in the Middle Ages. As creatures of the night, owls are naturally good at capturing fear, and the shrieking nighttime call of several species of owls is a rather alarming ‘demonic’ shriek!
While many consider owls aesthetically beautiful, their dark, cryptic plumage, large eyes, and haunting calls probably didn’t help them repel these negative associations!
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