How Wise is an Owl?

You’ve probably heard the idiom, “As wise as an owl”. This beautiful bird has appeared multiple times in mythology and culture since the times of Ancient Greece and Rome and has been regarded with awe and fascination. Since its mythical traits were first documented in literature from Ancient Rome in the 8th century BC, the owl has also been feared and treated with suspicion.

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Ancient mythology

In early Rome, the owl was believed to bring bad luck and was generally feared. It was common practice to kill owls, as nailing their body to the exterior door would supposedly avert all the evil they were believed to have caused. People harboured the primitive belief that hearing an owl hooting meant there would be an imminent death.

In Ancient Greek mythology, dating from around the 7th century BC, the owl was highly revered. The goddess of wisdom, Athene, was so impressed by the owl’s solemn appearance and large eyes that she gave it the honour of being her favourite species among all birds.

The owl was a protected species and great numbers inhabited the Acropolis. Owls were said to have a magical “inner light” that enabled them to see at night. They were viewed as a protector and would accompany the Greek army to war to watch over the soldiers.

When an owl flew over the army before a battle, it was seen as a premonition of victory. Owls were held in such high esteem that they appeared on the reverse side of the coins used to trade around Athens.


English folklore

English folklore gave the barn owl a sinister reputation, as it became known as the bird of darkness and death. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the poets William Wordsworth and Robert Blair depicted the barn owl as the “bird of doom”.

The barn owl wasn’t all doom and gloom and it was also credited with being able to predict the weather. If the owls started screeching, it meant a storm was on the way. If they were heard hooting during bad weather, it meant a change was coming.


Are owls wise?

The image of the “wise owl” has persisted for centuries and no-one knows exactly when or where it began. Considering the Ancient Greeks held it in high regard, it’s more likely the owl’s wisdom was linked to Greece, rather than Rome, where it was killed and hung on barn doors.

Scientific studies have been carried out to ascertain whether the owl is as wise as its reputation suggests. Unfortunately, it seems owls aren’t much smarter than many other species of bird. While they are wonderful at hunting, they aren’t great problem-solvers.

Scientists gave owls and other large-brained birds, including parrots and crows, some simple cognitive tests. The birds were encouraged to pull a string to get a treat. Sadly, the grey owls were the worst at learning what to do, repeatedly failing the test that the other species managed to solve.

In other ways, however, owls have exhibited intelligence. Studies have shown that some owls are capable of using primitive tools. For example, the burrowing owl uses a piece of animal dung to lure dung beetles to its layer. It then preys on the bugs once they’ve been trapped.

The owls’ speciality is hunting, and its camouflage plumage, super-sensitive hearing and unique eyes help it to catch prey.


Owl species

There are six species of owl found in Britain. The tawny or brown owl is stout, with tan-coloured feathers. A monogamous species, it is very territorial. There are around 50,000 breeding pairs in the UK, making it the country’s most common species.

At only 8.5 inches tall, and with a wingspan of around 22 inches, the little owl was introduced in Kent in the 1870s and quickly made itself at home in arable areas. The most recent survey in 2009 revealed there were 5,700 pairs in the UK, although its numbers are believed to be in decline.

With a UK population of around 4,000 pairs, the barn owl is a most elegant bird, with its white and golden plumage and heart-shaped face. Many farmers make purpose-built accommodation for the barn owl because it keeps rat and mice numbers down.

Thanks to its upright ears with tufts of feathers sticking out and deep orange, staring eyes, the long-eared owl certainly looks wise! There are about 3,500 pairs in Britain, although the numbers are boosted in winter when more fly in from Europe. The most secretive of owls, it is totally nocturnal.

Living everywhere from coastal plains to lowland estuaries, the short-eared owl has a 40-inch wingspan – its unique wing-clapping is an integral part of its mating display. It has an amber conservation status, as there are believed to be only 2,180 native pairs in Britain, although its numbers can be swelled by winter migrants.

The mighty European owl is 26 inches tall, with a wingspan of 68 inches. Initially, the population in Britain began after birds flew in from Europe, but there has been a successful UK breeding programme since 1996. It is the top owl predator and can carry off prey up to the size of a deer fawn. It is Britain’s rarest owl, with up to 40 known breeding pairs.


Cornwall sanctuary

In Cornwall, the Screech Owl Sanctuary, located near St Columb Major, provides sanctuary for sick and injured owls, with the aim to release the birds back into the wild when they have recovered.  The sanctuary received a BBC Animal Award in 2002 for its sterling animal welfare work.


Owls in Cornwall

The little owl can be found living in the wild in Cornwall, and can be spotted along hedgerows, in parkland and on farmland. According to the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, it was introduced in the 19th century.

You’d be wise to check out our affordable country brands at MA Grigg’s. We also stock a wide range of wild bird foods to help our feathered friends survive through the harsh winter months.

Call into our St Austell store in person to meet our friendly and knowledgeable staff, or contact us online for further information.