Are Owls Smart? The Origin Of The Phrase 'As Wise As An Owl'

Rajnandini Roychoudhury
Feb 01, 2023 By Rajnandini Roychoudhury
Originally Published on Oct 26, 2021
Edited by Jacob Fitzbright
Fact-checked by Sakshi Raturi
Boreal owl looking to the camera.

Owls are solitary and nocturnal birds of prey and are divided into 200 different species found around the world.

Owls have 14 neck vertebrae, which is double what humans have, which helps these birds to rotate their necks around 270°. The eyesight of these owls is the most important characteristic as it aids in their nocturnal prey hunting.

Owls actually do not have large or well-developed brains compared to the birds in the crow and parrot families, and when evaluated in captivity these birds haven’t shown any extraordinary intelligence.

In different cultures, owls are depicted in different forms.

In Western parts, owls are considered bright and intelligent, and in Eastern parts, owls depict foolishness and luck according to the locations of their occurrence.

Owls have evolved their physical attributes and senses to adapt to their nocturnal hunting way of life, and probably had no requirement for extra abilities such as curiosity, which can result in a greater intelligence.

Owls are considered as the symbol of wisdom and knowledge because of their nocturnal nature and their triumph as hunters but not because of any excellence in intelligence.

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Reasons Why Owls Are Considered Smart

The intelligence of a bird depends on how we interpret intelligence for birds, the two proper ways for interpreting the smartness of a bird are by doing a certain task in an effective way, and by problem-solving.

Owls have a very powerful hearing sense and sight that is unmatched by other birds. Owls use about 75% of their brain to gain a powerful sense of hearing and vision, and the remaining 25% of their brain to process data and make decisions.

Owls are the master of stealth and can move from one place to another without creating any commotion with a silent flight.

Owls are solitary in nature compared to parrots, corvids, and crows, it is hard to find common ground for comparison of smartness.

If it comes to rational abilities, corvids are the smartest birds in the group showing signs of using tools, memory, and deception. According to Greek culture, Athena the Greek goddess of wisdom and knowledge was always illustrated with an owl on her shoulder which created the myth of the owls being wise and intelligent.

Due to this bird being linked with Athena, it grew in popularity among the people of ancient Greece.

The night vision of owls inspired the Ancient Greek society, making them believe that this vision was the outcome of a spiritual inner light and linked the owls with Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom.

Owls are typically considered a symbol of intelligence and wisdom, this bit of well-liked wisdom seems to be based on ancient myth, with no foundation in science.

This myth has been reinforced throughout true stories based on folklores in different ways and different forms.

Owls And Other Birds' Smartness Comparison

Comparing owls with other birds is maybe considered a waste of time as these birds have their own way of showing their intelligence.

Crows, corvids, and parrots are examples of flying animals who are more lively in their rational behaviors. These clever birds use the notion of harmony whereas the owls are solitary in nature.

Owls forage in the dark making them special with their extraordinary sense of hearing and vision instead of using their brain. The smartness of owls is scaled in between when compared to the other clever birds.

Crow, corvids, and parrots are very active and eager in problem-solving situations whereas the owls cannot perform a simple task designed to check their wisdom. Ravens use numerous levels of tools to complete a dire task, they also save food for the rainy season when the food is in short supply, and they have a strong memory.

Hawks can be taught to bring back objects. Parrots are very practical in producing words and are considered the smartest among the avian intelligence.

The verbal proficiency of parrots is well-known and they can manage to recollect few words and speak them.

These birds live in colonies accomplishing things as a team. Parrots can be trained to learn how to count and even ask for help in some cases.

Owls - The Wisest Birds

Owls are amid the few life forms that are considered differently in different parts of the world. In many cultures, people have contradictory views about owls.

Since pre-historic times, owls have been considered intelligent creatures because earlier people depended on hunting for their survival which was considered as the only strength, and owls are known as sharp hunters with strong instincts making them creatures of wisdom.

Owls were considered as the symbol of wisdom and knowledge in ancient Greek society due to the size of their eyes and in modern days using vision, eyeglasses are considered a sign of intelligence among academia as the glasses mimics the big eyes of the owls.

In ancient Egyptian society, people feared owls as they were considered the sign of a bad omen. Even the ancient Roman society feared owls as they were considered the metaphor for famine, defeat, and disaster.

It is also believed that when the Roman army was destroyed and the death of many historic figures was predicted by owls, this death foreseeing ability of the owl made it an amusing bird species.

Owls are considered to be the symbol of unearned wealth in many parts of Indian subcontinents, and in Native American societies, an owl is the sign of bad luck and death. In Japanese societies, owls are identified as good luck and charm.

Smartness Of Owls - A Comparison

Humans have portrayed owls as wise and sage for thousands of years, but owls are particularly not smart when compared to other big-brained birds.

Owls are remarkably bad at problem-solving and in one of the studies, the great grey owls repeatedly failed to complete the simple task of pulling a string to acquire a treat which was successfully completed by other bird species of the same ability.

It doesn't mean that all owls are dumb, a few owls have been found using a tool or two to solve problems.

It has been observed that burrowing owls use animal dung to attract dung beetles to their nest and then feed on them.

The use of this simple tool doesn't mean that all owls are wise, though owls are extraordinary in their own way. The incredible ability to hear, unique tubular eyes with extraordinary sight, and camouflaging plumage help them catch their prey.

An owl's feathers give us a flawed notion of its true size. Hunting patterns are planned by owls depending on the movement pattern of their prey.

In particular cases, the great horned owls are often seen making repeated descends on colonies of ducks that return to their native range.

Barn owls are seen following a well-ordered hunting timetable, they hunt at least three times a day around sunset, midnight, around sunrise. Great horned owls are known for preying on domestic animals such as fowl, small dogs, and house cats.

Specialty Of Owls

Owls have many special qualities, but being intelligent isn't one of them.

Owls are amid the few specialized birds of prey, with ears and eyes contrived to easily pinpoint their prey, and special comb-like feathers that grant them silent flight during night. Owls hunt during the night, foraging small animals and rodents.

This bird consumes its prey whole, but it is not ingested completely.

The digestive tract of an owl compresses the indigestible portions, such as bone and fur, into a tight pellet which it croaks up and throws out through its mouth. The keen visual sight and listening abilities of owls help them to silently plunge down on their unaware prey and snatch them using their sharp talons.

Owls pick off smaller birds in the air using their sharp talons. When foraging, owls hover above the surface of the water to catch snakes or fish.

Great gray owls, hawk owls, barn owls, and boreal owls are found attacking prey that burrows under snow by using their keen listening ability to locate the buried prey.

Occasionally, when the owl loses its prey, it seems to simply tramp around until the small animal has been driven out of snow. Great horned owls have a rough but successful method of forcing their prey, in this case, squirrels from their dens by slamming into the sides of the dens to terrify them to dash for another cover.

Owls As Pets

Owls are not considered the best example for pets and there are many reasons why they should not be kept as pets.

Firstly, owls are carnivore and their food mainly consists of meat which means you need to provide a meat-based diet to these birds which becomes a hectic job for the owners.

Owls are wild and need a lot of space, which means you cant keep them in cages, and if you keep them open inside your house they may cause damage to your furniture by their shape talons.

In many countries keeping an owl as a pet is illegal, you need to get special permission from the government.

Owls are nocturnal in nature which means they are mostly active during the night making it difficult for the owners to look after them. Owls need constant care and if you have an owl then you need to make sure that your owl is always looked after you cannot leave a pet owl alone as they are very messy.

Owls are considered to be sedentary and they enjoy their time sitting on a perch without doing numerous activities compared to the other pet birds.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for are owls smart then why not take a look at are birds warm-blooded, or are black diamonds real.

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Written by Rajnandini Roychoudhury

Bachelor of Arts specializing in English, Master of Arts specializing in English

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Rajnandini RoychoudhuryBachelor of Arts specializing in English, Master of Arts specializing in English

With a Master of Arts in English, Rajnandini has pursued her passion for the arts and has become an experienced content writer. She has worked with companies such as Writer's Zone and has had her writing skills recognized by publications such as The Telegraph. Rajnandini is also trilingual and enjoys various hobbies such as music, movies, travel, philanthropy, writing her blog, and reading classic British literature. 

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Fact-checked by Sakshi Raturi

Postgraduate Diploma in Management

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Sakshi RaturiPostgraduate Diploma in Management

Sakshi has experience in marketing strategy, social media planning, and recruiting industry experts for capstone projects, she has displayed a commitment to enhancing their skills and knowledge. She has won multiple awards, including a Certificate of Appreciation for Creative Writing and a Certificate of Merit for Immaculate Turut, and is always seeking new opportunities to grow and develop.

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