Are Owls Really Wise?
Owls are no wiser than many other birds. In fact, geese and crows are smarter. But owls have large, staring eyes, which make them look as if they are thinking very hard. Because of their nocturnal habits and their ominous hooting sounds, owls have long been associated with sorcery.
In some countries, a hooting owl was thought to be an omen that a disaster was near. Probably because it was believed they could foretell such events, owls were considered wise. One reason that an owl hoots is to warn other male owls to stay away from its hunting and nesting grounds.
The ancient Greeks considered them wise and paired them with Athena, the goddess of wisdom. But in India, they’re thought of as dumb because of their blank expressions. (That’s interesting, since owls’ big eyes “see all” and therefore make them wise in Western culture.)
As it turns out, storytellers in India might be onto something—owls aren’t nearly as brainy as we give them credit for. They’re great hunters and can see and hear remarkably well at night; the feathers on their wings allow them to fly silently, catching prey by surprise. But in terms of bird brains, they don’t score too highly on the smarts scale.
Louis Lefebvre, an animal behaviorist at Montreal’s McGill University, concluded after much research that a bird’s intellect is tied to how big its brain is compared with its body. He found crows to be the smartest. Owls, with their relatively large bodies and puny brains, aren’t as intelligent; they can’t learn tricks as astutely as hawks or parrots can, for example.
What brain power they do have is devoted to hunting, a sport at which they best even hawks. Owls aren’t wise in general, but you could argue that they’re smart about the important stuff.
It’s fascinating to think how different our perceptions of animals would be if we didn’t grow up inundated with particular images of them. For instance, the owl’s piercing stare signals knowledge to some and a Vacancy signs in the head to others.
But even their real-life characteristics can teach us essential lessons if we take the time to learn about them—namely, that we should focus on remembering the stuff that really matters, that there’s such a thing as too much curiosity, that it’s possible to make the best of any situation, and that we’d hunt more successfully by growing feathers to mask the sound of air against our moving bodies.