Are Owls Intelligent?

Owls are amazing birds 

They are great at hunting and fly very silently,

One question bird lovers ask is – Are owls intelligent?

Though, owls have great sensory and hunting skills, they generally lack the capacity to think, learn, and improvise.

Furthermore, they do not form complex social structures and rarely ever communicate.

Owls are usually considered primitive and less intelligent birds.

Since owls are often depicted as wise beings, the idea of a dumb owl is somewhat confusing. 

Here’s what you’re going to discover in this article

Are Owls Smart Or Dumb?

Bluntly put, owls are the avian version of dumb assassins. 

Now, the term “Intelligence” can be defined as the extent of cognitive function to social capabilities.

So, there is no direct way to measure intelligence.

Furthermore, birds cannot partake in most of the human-made IQ tests. 

Mainly because you cannot ask a bird to solve a math puzzle or write some college essay.

It would have been easier to call a bird dumb if only we had its grades.

Anyways,

One can only estimate an owl’s intelligence by comparing it to other birds. 

Even so, owls have unusually large heads compared to their body size.

Since the large skull space suggests large brain materials and by extension, higher intelligence. So it may make you think,

“Why Are Owls Dumb?”

Because they don’t have enough brain matter.

You see, about 2/3rd of an owl’s brain space is occupied by its exceptionally large eyes.

So, an owl’s brain is even smaller than its eyes.

Interestingly, 75% of an owl’s brain is wired to control auditory and optical organs.

The remaining 25% of the brain controls all other body functions from breathing to communicating and even flying. 

Such extreme distribution of nerves helps owls become great hunters.

But it also means owls will have reduced control over other body functions.

More precisely,

Owls have exceptional vision and hearing abilities, at the expense of thinking capacity.

This is most evident with the absence of Dorsal Ventricular Ridge (DVR) – the avian organ that controls judgment ability. 

Since owls don’t have DVR, therefore, they don’t have the ability to see beyond instant gains.

They tend to take on all sorts of fights, even the ones they may potentially lose.

Ornithologists often argue that the absence of DVR signifies fearlessness among owls. 

Perhaps, owls seem dumb only because they are too bold.

Besides, being smart can also be described merely as dexterity.

Since hunting requires a great deal of attention and focus, which is why instead of calling owls dumb, a more appropriate question would be asking:

How Smart Is An Owl?

That depends on how you measure smartness.

Earlier, bird brains were considered small brains with little or no consciousness. 

Now, ornithologists argue that birds have more nerves and larger ganglia packed inside small spaces.

Or,

Bird brains are essentially analogous to Primate brains in functioning.

This means that amount of brain does not authentically represent a bird’s thinking capacity.

This also means a bird may be smarter than a baboon or a giraffe.

Since we cannot communicate with birds to evaluate their opinions and learning capacity, scientists have devised certain tests to rank bird intelligence, compared to other birds.

By all standards, corvids and parrots rank as the most intelligent birds. 

That said, I present to you a humble attempt at determining owl’s smartness in different parameters:

Parameter Measured Ability Results for Owls
Counting The traditional measures of intelligence Some owl species can track the number of eggs per clutch. But, most cannot tell if there is an egg missing.
Associative Learning Visual and auditory signals associated with bait Owls did not show any significant improvement while finding food from the same spot, in repeated experiments.
Olfactory Associative Learning Ability to associate smells with reward. Owls cannot smell much.
Auditory Associative Learning Ability to associate sounds with reward. Owls have two ears located at different heights on each side. Therefore, they can pinpoint the location of an animal scurrying away.
Color Recognition Measure of vision Owls are rather color blind but can tell the difference between contrasting colors because of different photon distribution.
Reversal Learning Ability to adapt to change. Owls don’t change their habits with habitats. So, there is not much reversal learning.
Neophobia Cautiousness to New Habitats Owls are not much wary of other animals. Rather, they show the same approach to all kinds of environments.
Spatial and Temporal Abilities Ability to remember food sources with seasons. No strong evidence is available.
Self-Awareness Ability to recognize oneself in a mirror. Barn owls seem to not get confused with their reflection in windows or water. 
Observational Learning Ability to see and learn. 6 out of 12 owls were unable to pull string to get bait.
Social Behavior and communication Ability to form complex social structures and communicate. Owls mate for life, but families are only together for a few months. 

Owls will eat other owls for territorial claims. 

They don’t make complex family structures and so, don’t need to communicate as much.

Conceptual Abilities Ability to differentiate between different series Currently, no evidence is available to suggest owls can conceptualize much.

Owls do not make use of tools like parrots and crows.

Hunting Method Ability to devise plans. Most owls hunt by silently jumping on their victims. But, Burrowing Owls have shown the ability to collect and throw dung as bait to capture beetles.

With all these, we can claim that:

Owls are cold-blooded hunters, but not great thinkers.

Now, you may be questioning:

Why Are Owls Considered Wise?

Likely, because of their nocturnal habits or intelligent-looking large eyes.

You see, owls have extremely large faces with prominent eyes so they seem somewhat like a human child.

Thereby, making them appear wise.

However, psychologists argue that this conviction started with the assumption that all smart people wear glasses.

How so?

Well, owls have narrow indents underneath their eyes to collect sound waves, making them appear as if wearing natural spectacles, making them appear avian scholars.

However, owls have been considered wise in several different cultures, way before the invention of eyeglasses. 

So, historians suggest that owls are considered wise because they have the ability to see within the dark.

Or, spiritually,

Owls can see beyond the bleak and conventional, making them wise birds.

Even so, owls represent different omens in various cultures.

Here is a list:

Culture Region Typical Association
Ancient Greek Mythology Greece Owl represents Athena – the goddess of wisdom and knowledge.

Paintings show the owl as a companion to Athena. 

Roman

Mythology

Rome Owls are associated with Minerva – the goddess of wisdom and prophecy.

The owls allegedly predicted several tragedies including Julius Caesar’s death.

The Aztecs and the Mayans Native Americans 

(Central Mexico)

Owls represent destruction and death.
The Publeons Southwestern USA Fertility spirit, but sometimes the god of death.
The Pawnee North America Central Plains Owls are mercy and protection.
The Ojibwe Tribes North American Indian Tribes Owls represent evil or death.
Japanophilia Japan Owls indicate fortune and wisdom
Asian Sub-continent Owls represent stupidity, loss of wealth and fortune.

But, cultural perceptions may not be scientifically correct. 

So, if you are wondering:

Are Owls Smarter Than Humans?

Most certainly, not.

You see, owls’ brains are not even 1% of their entire body weight.

Meanwhile, a human brain consists of up to 3% of its entire body weight.

Biologically, this means:

Compared to Owls, Humans have more nerve endings to learn and perceive.

Now, owls do have the ability to see in the dark, detect prey with the slightest of sounds, grab them silently, and kill their victims with barely a movement of their talons.

But all these skills are physical in nature.

In contrast, a human can perceive other animals as companions rather than just-food.

Another thing is, a human on a hunting expedition is likely to understand his prey, plan ahead and use tools to capture that animal. 

One can say,

While humans have the most developed cognitive function, owls are surviving on the bare minimum brain function.

Birders familiar with owls often joke that owls have only four brain cells.

One for eyes, one for hearing, one for reproduction, and one for keeping up with weird sleep patterns.

Perhaps, humans have too many brain cells. 

No other species is as curious about other species as humans.

We are trying to study all other creatures, and even ourselves.

If anything, that alone puts us on the highest rank of consciousness and therefore, smartness. 

But mayhaps, your curiosity about owls started with a desire to have an owl pet.

If so, you must be interested in asking:

Are Owls Friendly?

They normally aren’t, but they can be.

Now, owls don’t live in flocks.

They do mate for life and raise owlets, but they don’t share territories with other grown owls.

In fact, if given the chance they will consume other owls.

However, owls have shown tendencies to form bonds with their human keepers.

They are not generally cuddly, but they don’t reject human touch from their familiar keepers.

However, most owls can be friends with just one family in a single lifetime.

Why?

Since owls have small brain space to contain all their nerve connections.

Which is why, once their brains completely develop, they are unlikely to learn anything new.

This is precisely why younger owls are more likely to become friends with humans,  than older owls.

Still, taming or teaching tricks to even a younger owl is a hectic and somewhat futile task. 

Here’s some interesting articles about owls which I think you’ll find interesting so do check them out!

Are crows afraid of owls?

Do hawks eat owls?

Wrapping Up 

Owls are great hunters with powerful ears and prominent eyes, however, compared to other birds, owls are rather less intelligent birds.

They are often considered the wisest birds.

That said, owls are not smarter than humans, but they can become human friends if raised the right way.