15 Mysterious Facts About Owls

Owls are enigmatic birds, by turns mysterious, lovable, or spooky, depending on who you ask. With over 200 species living on every continent except Antarctica, owls have super-tuned senses that help them hunt prey all over the world. And they’re pretty darn cute, too.

1. OWLS CAN TURN THEIR HEADS ALMOST ALL THE WAY AROUND—BUT NOT QUITE.

It’s a myth that owls can rotate their heads 360 degrees. The birds can actually turn their necks 135 degrees in either direction, which gives them 270 degrees of total movement. According to scientists, bone adaptations, blood vessels with contractile reservoirs, and a supporting vascular network allow the owls to turn their heads that far without cutting off blood to the brain.

2. OWLS HAVE FAR-SIGHTED, TUBULAR EYES. 

Instead of spherical eyeballs, owls have "eye tubes" that go far back into their skulls—which means their eyes are fixed in place, so they have to turn their heads to see. The size of their eyes helps them see in the dark, and they're far-sighted, which allows them to spot prey from yards away. Up close, everything is blurry, and they depend on small, hair-like feathers on their beaks and feet to feel their food.

3. THEY HAVE SUPER-POWERED HEARING. 

Owls are capable of hearing prey under leaves, plants, dirt, and snow. Some owls have sets of ears at different heights on their heads, which lets them locate prey based on tiny differences in sound waves. Other owls have flat faces with special feathers that focus sound, essentially turning their faces into one big ear. (The “ear tufts” on some owls are feathers.)

4. OWL FLIGHT IS SILENT.

Unlike most birds, owls make virtually no noise when they fly. They have special feathers that break turbulence into smaller currents, which reduces sound. Soft velvety down further muffles noise.

5. OWLS SWALLOW PREY WHOLE, THEN BARF UP THE CARCASS. 

Getting killed by an owl is gruesome. First the owl grabs the prey and crushes it to death with its strong talons. Then, depending on the size, it either eats the prey whole or rips it up. The owl’s digestive tract processes the body, and the parts that can’t be digested, like fur and bones, are compacted into a pellet, which the owl later regurgitates. Sometimes, those pellets are collected for kids to dissect in school.

6. THEY SOMETIMES EAT OTHER OWLS. 

Not only do owls eat surprisingly large prey (some species, like the eagle owl, can even grab small deer), they also eat other species of owls. Great horned owls, for example, will attack the barred owl. The barred owl, in turn, sometimes eats the Western screech-owl. In fact, owl-on-owl predation may be a reason why Western screech-owl numbers have declined.

7. OWLS FEED THE STRONGEST BABIES FIRST.

As harsh as it sounds, the parents always feed the oldest and strongest owlet before its sibling. This means that if food is scarce, the youngest chicks will starve. After an owlet leaves the nest, it often lives nearby in the same tree, and its parents still bring it food. If it can survive the first winter on its own, its chances of survival are good.

8. THEY'RE MASTERS OF CAMOUFLAGE. 

Many owls sleep in broad daylight, but the colors and markings on their feathers—like the African Scops Owl, above—let them blend in with their surroundings.

9. SOMETIMES THEY MAKE A TERRIFYING HISSING NOISE. 

Aside from hooting, owls make a variety of calls, from screeches to whistles to squeaks. The barn owl hisses when it feels threatened, which sounds like something from a nightmare.

10. ELF OWLS LIVE IN CACTI.

The smallest owl is the elf owl, which lives in the southwestern United States and Mexico. It will sometimes make its home in the giant saguaro cactus, nesting in holes made by other animals. However, the elf owl isn’t picky and will also live in trees or on telephone poles.

11. BURROWING OWLS TAKE OVER PRAIRIE DOG TOWNS—AND HUNT WITH POOP.

The long-legged burrowing owl lives in South and North America. One of the few owls that is active during the daytime, it nests in the ground, moving into tunnels excavated by other animals such as prairie dogs. They’ll also dig their own homes if necessary. Then, they'll surround the entrances to their burrows with dung and "sit at the burrow entrance all day long and it looks like they're doing nothing," University of Florida zoologist Douglas Levey told National Geographic. But they're not doing nothing: They're fishing. The poop is bait for dung beetles, one of the owls' favorite types of prey. "Everybody who studies burrowing owls knows they bring dung back to their burrows, and they know that burrowing owls eat a lot of dung beetles. But nobody had put two and two together," Levey, co-author of a 2004 study announcing the behavior, said.

12. OWLS ARE NATURAL PEST CONTROL FOR FARMERS. 

Owls eat a lot of rodents. A single barn owl family will eat 3000 rodents in a four-month breeding cycle. One owl can eat 50 pounds of gophers in a year. Many farmers are installing owl nesting boxes in the hopes that owls will clean out pests like gophers and voles from their land. This natural form of pest control is safer and cheaper than using poison, and it’s better for the owls too. Many owls die each year from eating rodents that have been poisoned.

13. OWLS WERE ONCE A SIGN OF VICTORY IN BATTLE ... 

In ancient Greece, the Little Owl was the companion of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, which is one reason why owls symbolize learning and knowledge. But Athena was also a warrior goddess and the owl was considered the protector of armies going into war. If Greek soldiers saw an owl fly by during battle, they took it as a sign of coming victory. 

14. ... AND A SYMBOL OF DEATH. 

From ancient times on, owls have been linked with death, evil, and other superstitions. Many cultures saw owls as a sign of impending death. For example, an owl was said to have predicted the death of Julius Caesar. They’ve also been associated with witches and other so-called evil beings. While this may sound like Halloween fun, many cultures still have superstitions about owls and in some places, owls are killed based on these beliefs.

15. OWLS AND HUMANS GENERALLY GET ALONG.

Owls have been popular since ancient times. They show up in Egyptian hieroglyphs and the 30,000-year-old cave paintings in France. Falconers have used owls since the Middle Ages, although not as commonly as other birds. Today, we still love owls. Though it’s illegal to keep them as pets in the United States, they’re intelligent and sociable. (Most of the time, anyway—owls can attack humans when feeling threatened.) In Japan, there are even owl cafés, where you can hang out with owls while drinking tea. 

9 Tiny Facts About the Chevrotain

Dave Curtis, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Dave Curtis, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With a round body, spindly legs, and long fangs, this odd creature gives the platypus a run for its money. Also known as the mouse deer, chevrotains are shy and mysterious, and not much is known about them. But here's what we do know.

1. Chevrotains are not mice, nor are they deer.

Lesser mouse deer or chevrotain
BirdHunter591/iStock via Getty Images

At first glance, these animals look like a weird mash-up of a deer, a mouse, and a pig. Mouse deer share a suborder with deer (Ruminantia) but are not considered “true deer.” They have their own family, Tragulidae.

2. Chevrotain species vary by weight.

Mouse deer in Thailand
MonthiraYodtiwong/iStock via Getty Images

These creatures are way smaller than any deer. Depending on the species, a chevrotain can weigh anywhere from 4 to 33 pounds. The smallest species is the lesser Malay, while the largest is the water chevrotain. No species gets any larger than a small dog.

3. There are a lot of different kinds of chevrotains.

Mouse deer
aee_werawan/iStock via Getty Images

This tiny animal comes in many variations. The family has been classified into two genera: true chevrotains (Hyemoschus) and the mouse deer (Tragulus). The spotted mouse deer are still very mysterious, so scientists have placed them in their own genus called Moschiola. Despite being categorized in different genera, they all share a similar look.

4. Chevrotain fangs are fiercer than Dracula's.

Chevrotain in a woodland
BirdHunter591/iStock via Getty Images

Open up a chevrotain’s mouth and you’ll find two long fangs. They're especially elongated in males, which use the needle-like canines to stab each other. Thanks to an extra thick coat and robust muscles around the neck and rump, these adorable fighters are protected from bites during combat.

5. Some consider the chevrotain a living fossil.

Chevrotain sticking its tongue out
Josh More, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Chevrotains are the most primitive of ruminants. Like deer and similar hoofed animals, they have even-toed hooves and a multi-chambered stomach. But unlike deer, chevrotains have a three-chambered stomach instead of four, and they lack horns or antlers. They haven't changed or evolved much during their time on Earth. Scientists see them as an evolutionary link between ruminants and non-ruminants.

6. Taking a dip is the water chevrotain's best defense.

The water chevrotain is known for its ability to dive underwater when it senses a predator nearby. The miniature swimmers scrunch up and walk on the bottom of rivers and streams to prevent being picked up by the current. If there are any reeds or plants around, the animals will grab them to stay tethered. Chevrotains are able to hold their breath for about four minutes.

While hiding from hungry predators, the water chevrotain can reemerge to get some air before diving back down. Still, the animal tires easily, and can only swim for short periods of time.

7. Childbirth is an expedited experience for chevrotains.

Chevrotain in a woodland
aee_werawan/iStock via Getty Images

After getting pregnant, a female chevrotain will carry the offspring for five to nine months, depending on the species. The baby can usually stand on its own within one hour of being born. Mothers will visit their young periodically for feedings and stand on three legs while nursing.

Chevrotains are known for their ability to be almost continuously pregnant—greater and lesser Malay mouse deer can mate again only a few hours after giving birth.

8. Chevrotains are shy wallflowers.

Chevrotain in a woodland
cowboy5437/iStock via Getty Images

Due to their small size, chevrotains are preyed upon by many different animals. Lacking antlers or horns for protection, the tiny animals are forced to lead secluded lives. Some species are nocturnal and very rarely seen. Chevrotains are very shy and often graze alone, only coming together to mate. They communicate with a series of smells and noises; this timid behavior makes it difficult for scientists to study them.

9. Chevrotain hooves make a lot of noise.

Chevrotain in a woodland
asxsoonxas/iStock via Getty Images

Although normally peaceful, a male will angrily beat his hooves when agitated—they can stomp around four to seven times a second. This “drum roll” technique wards off predators and warns other chevrotains in the area that there’s danger.

Additional sources: "Water Chevrotain," Amazing Animals of the World; "Chevrotains (Tragulidae)," Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia; Mammals IV, Gale Virtual Reference Library

'Lost Species' of Tiny, Rabbit-Sized Deer Photographed in Vietnam for the First Time in 30 Years

Global Wildlife Conservation
Global Wildlife Conservation

The silver-backed chevrotain, also called the Vietnamese mouse-deer, is elusive. It's so elusive that scientists had feared it was extinct after none had been photographed for decades. But as The Washington Post reports, the first images taken of the mammal in nearly 30 years prove that the species is still alive in the woods of Vietnam.

No larger than small dogs, chevrotains are the tiniest ungulates, or hoofed animals, on Earth. They have vampire-like fangs and skinny legs that support their bodies. Silver-backed chevrotains are characterized by the silver sheen of their tawny coat.

The tiny population native to Vietnam has been devastated by poachers in recent decades. That, and the animal's natural shyness, make it incredibly difficult to study. Before this most recent sighting, the last time scientists had recorded one was in 1990.

Global Wildlife Conservation, the Southern Institute of Ecology, and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research teamed up in hopes of documenting the lost species. Researchers interviewed residents and government forest rangers in the Vietnamese city of Nha Trang about the silver-backed chevrotain, looking for tips on where to find one. Residents said that while populations had been hit hard by hunting, the animals were still around.

Based on this local ecological knowledge, scientists set up three camera traps in the Vietnamese woods. In just five months, they captured 275 photographs of the little mouse-deer. They then installed 29 additional cameras and snapped 1881 new images in that same length of time.

“For so long this species has seemingly only existed as part of our imagination," Global Wildlife Conservation associate conservation scientist An Nguyen said in a statement. "Discovering that it is, indeed, still out there, is the first step in ensuring we don’t lose it again, and we’re moving quickly now to figure out how best to protect it.”

Now that a silver-backed chevrotain population has been located, researchers plan to conduct the first-ever comprehensive survey of the species. Once the data is collected, it will be used to build a plan for the species' survival.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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