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Why and how an owl's head swivels so well

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Owl heads

Owls can turn their heads almost completely around. Why and how do they do this?

For one, owls have twice as many bones in their neck – called vertebrae – compared to humans. Owls have 14 vertebrae while humans have seven.

Where the neck bones meet the owl’s skull they have one groove that allows their heads to swivel. Humans have two in the same place. One way to think about it is if you stood on two swivel chairs, with a foot on each chair. It’s hard, and unsafe, to swivel very far with a foot on each chair. However, if you are standing on one swivel chair, it’s much easier to turn around.

Owls can only turn their head 270 degrees, or three quarters of the way around. So if they are looking straight ahead, they could turn to the left and continue before stopping at the right side. Likewise, they could turn right to left.

If humans did this it would cut off the blood supply that travels through our necks to our brains. Owls have wider holes in their neck bones that keep the blood vessels from being pinched.

An owl’s blood vessels are also larger between the neck and brain, allowing blood to pool there. Blood vessels in the owl’s brain are more connected than a human’s, helping to keep blood flowing.

The reason owls need the ability to move their necks so far is because of their eyes. They have great vision, but are unable to move their eyes as much as we can. So they have adapted to turn their heads.

Montana bird watchers have documented 14 different owl species in the state. They range from the tiny northern pygmy owl to the large snowy owl, which only visits in winter.

— Brett French,


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