Owls stare, wink and pose outlandishly – but what can we infer from these actions? Owl expert Tanja Brandt has interpreted a few particularly eye-catching examples for us
The body language of owls
The owl swoops majestically over its territory, nothing escaping its beady gaze: owls, like the great grey owl (left), feel most at home soaring silently through the skies. It might sound like we’re stating the obvious, but actually the opposite is true: owls – like all birds – intrinsically dislike flying and, if at all possible, avoid all forms of airborne exertion. They don’t want to put on an air show, they just want something to eat. “Even if they feel hungry, owls would still prefer to raid their supply store than go hunting,” explains owl aficionado Tanja Brandt. You see, this flying malarkey is energy sapping – if anything it will make them even more hungry. But this isn’t the only misconception drawn from the odd behaviour of the grey owl and friends.
Take the chap top right. An owl’s wink is the equivalent of our human blink reflex and has nothing to do with the sly transmission of a specific message. “Owls just couldn’t do that,” stresses Brandt. Our little owl, as the genus is called, is much more likely to be extremely relaxed, and is opening its beak nice and wide. Not to squawk at anybody, but to throw up some pellets – leftovers from its last meal that it is unable to digest. As this procedure is extremely tiring, the bird shuts one of its eyes. And would now like to be alone, please.
And no, the owl in the middle picture hasn’t gone into hiding. Tanja Brandt explains: “This one is making full use of its 270-degree rotatable head to clean its tail feathers. Owls only clean themselves when they are fully relaxed.” This greasing of the plumage is vital to the birds’ survival – without the constant, meticulous removal of dirt, owls would find their ability to hunt seriously impeded. And then the whole slog would have been for nothing because we now know that owls aren’t keen on flying.
As for the odd pose struck by the owl on the bottom right… well, he may look a bit tipsy but he’s actually showing off – this male owl has been in full view of a female for the entire day. After all, it is the mating season, a time when owls contort their bodies into ever more bizarre shapes. “He looks like he’s about to take off,” says Brandt. But it’s also possible that he has just touched down, having leapt from his hide with folded wings and only spread them moments before he reached the ground. An impressive feat.