Curious Questions: How wise are owls?

The age-old image of the intelligent owl has persisted for centuries — but are they really the intellectuals of the avian world? Martin Fone investigates.

Not for nothing are they known as silent killers. If their excellent night vision, even sharper hearing and razor-sharp talons were not formidable enough, owls have evolved another weapon that enhances their element of surprise over their victims, their ability to fly silently. Unlike most birds whose flight feathers have straight edges which make a sound as they move through the air, those of the owl have comb-like, fringed edges that interlock to form one continuous edge, eliminating the rustling sound as they move. Owls have a success rate of around 85%, a return that many other birds of prey would kill for.

As one of our most easily recognisable indigenous birds, if only by dint of its distinctive hooting sound that punctuates the nocturnal soundscape, the owl unsurprisingly features strongly in our native folklore. What is more surprising is that, at least from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century, it had a sinister reputation as a bird of darkness, one associated with death. Many thought that the screech of an owl flying past a sick person’s window meant their imminent death. In Julius Caesar (Act 1: Scene 3), Shakespeare cites the daytime hooting of an owl amongst the unusual events that presage the Roman general’s death; ‘yesterday, the bird of night did sit even at noonday, upon the market place, hooting and shrieking’. For William Wordsworth, the Barn Owl was his favourite ‘bird of doom’.

According to a 12th century preacher from Kent, Odo of Cheriton, the owl was condemned to a nocturnal existence by the other birds after stealing a rose, the intended prize in a beauty contest. In the mediaeval fable, The Owl and the Nightingale, an owlet nurtured by a hawk reveals its true identity by befouling the nest, thereby proving that, despite a different upbringing, it could not hide its natural uncleanliness.

Owls were often depicted as having distinctive Jewish features in the Middle Ages and Protestants and Catholics in turn were portrayed as owls by their opponents in the religious turmoil of the 16th century. The source of these negative connotations can be traced to the scriptures; an owl was described as an unclean bird in the Book of Leviticus and Job, in his sorrow, was said to be a companion of owls, the bird of mourning. We northeners, though, contrary to the last, regarded the spotting of an owl as a sign of good luck.

Owls had meteorological properties. Nailing one to a barn door was said to ward off lightning, a belief that persisted well into the 19th century, until Benjamin Franklin’s new-fangled lightning rods were more universally adopted. The screech of an owl in foul weather was supposed to be a harbinger of better times to come. If the weather was good, though, its call was said to herald the approach of a cold snap or a storm.

Owls were also associated with traditional medicine. Their eggs, imbibed raw, were said to be a cure for alcoholism. A child could get a lifetime’s protection against drunkenness if they were forced to drink the potion. By cooking the eggs until they had turned to ashes, you had the key ingredient for a potion to improve eyesight. Owl broth was given to children suffering from whooping-cough.

Today, though, if you were to play a game of word association, you would probably link an owl with wisdom, a return to its elevated status in classical Greece. It was a symbol of Athena, goddess of wisdom and rational thought. She was often depicted as either holding an owl or with one seated on her blind side so that she could see the whole truth. In literature she was described as ‘owl-eyed’ or ‘owl-faced’. The influence of a classical education in the 19th century may have played its part in the rehabilitation of the bird’s reputation.

The association of the bird with wisdom is surely bound up with its physiognomy, specifically, its large saucer-shaped eyes. Denuded of feathers the eye sockets in its skull are even larger than they seem; transposed on to the human skull, they would be the size of oranges. Added to which the owl’s nocturnal habits and its ability to turn its neck through 270 degrees give the impression that nothing escapes its attention. It would know everything, a veritable paradigm of wisdom. The nursery rhyme, The Wise Old Owl, sums up this view perfectly; ‘a wise old owl lived in an oak/ the more he saw the less he spoke/ the less he spoke the more he heard/ why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?’

One of those enduring childhood images that have remained with me is the sight of a Barn Owl which had toppled into a farmyard water trough and drowned. Their feathers are not waterproof, the owl’s evolutionary trade-off for silent flight. Rain at night means rodent is off the menu and a prolonged period of rain, especially during the breeding season, not unknown in our climes, can often spell disaster for them.

A two-month old Ural Owl (Strix uralensis) at the International Centre for Birds of Prey near Newent.

This fundamental chink in their armour set me wondering whether owls really are as smart as they are cracked up to be. In the absence of a standard avian intelligence test, researchers have had to resort to devising problem-solving tests, designed to test their cognitive abilities. I have always been a bit sceptical about these tests as they seem to overlay anthropomorphic assumptions on to the behaviour of other creatures.

Leaving that aside, these tests consistently show that parrots and members of the corvid family, such as ravens, crows, jays, and magpies, are amongst the most intelligent. Research published in the journal, Science, on July 14, 2017, under the snappy title ‘Ravens parallel great apes in flexible planning for tool-use and bartering’, revealed that ravens, once trained to use a certain tool to access their food, chose the same tool from a collection of artefacts 17 hours later to solve the same problem. Apparently, this is a feat most monkeys struggle to perform.

Conspicuous by its absence from the list of brainy birds, though, is the owl. Unlike parrots that can be taught to mimic speech and hawks to retrieve objects, owls, according to bird trainers, cannot be trained to carry out even the most rudimentary of tasks. They just sit there, impervious to the increasingly frantic cajoling of their instructors. Unlike many of the so-called intelligent birds which are social, owls lead mainly solitary lives, have very predetermined behaviour patterns, and emit a limited range of sounds. Indeed, their distinctive call is one of the easiest for humans to mimic. Much of their brain power is focused on their sense of sight.

As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in Locksley Hall, ‘knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers’. An owl is content to stick to its metaphorical knitting, not troubling itself to pander to the wishes of those who want to change its ways. Perhaps that is the true sign of wisdom.