Even though owls are common throughout many countries, they retain a reputation for mystery and superstition. If you do get to spot one, it is often perched in a tree with it’s legs and feet mostly hidden. Recent videos and photos spread across the internet of owls’ long legs have piqued the curiosity of many. In this article we will look at 10 interesting facts about owl legs.
10 Facts about Owl Legs
For a bird that you often see perched and crouched, seeing the true length of an owls legs may be quite a surprise! While the proportions of an owls’ legs can sometimes make them look silly, it’s also a testament to how well-adapted these beautiful birds are to their ecological niche.
1. Owl Legs Have Wickedly Sharp Taloned Feet
Owls have four toes on each foot. Two point forward, one points backward, and the outer toe can go in either direction. Each talon is razor-sharp and can easily draw blood or impale prey upon impact. The sharpness of owl talons is one reason why animal handlers and biologists use thick leather gloves to hold these creatures.
Prey doesn’t stand a chance when it gets grabbed by these pincers.
2. Owls Grab Prey from the Air by Using their Legs
Owls are carnivores, meaning they catch and eat other animals in order to live. To hunt successfully, these birds of prey perch in a tall tree or snag near an open area like a field or forest clearing. Once they spot their intended prey, they fly silently to it and quickly grab it by extending their legs and splaying their talons.
After catching dinner, the owl might eat on the spot. However, it’s more likely that the bird will fly off to a safe and secluded place to eat its meal in peace.
3. The Legs of An Owl are Long Compared to the size of its body
The true size of owls’ legs is often hidden by their wings and thick layers of feathers. This is one reason why it can be such a surprise to see that an owl’s legs can measure up to half the height of its body!
Furthermore, owl legs are skinny and thin to reduce air resistance when flying. Most of the muscle in the bird’s legs is up closer to the body in the thigh. This reduces drag that could slow the owl down.
4. Owl Legs have longer shin bones than thigh bones
Owls have short femurs and long shin bones, the opposite of humans. This can be one reason why owl legs look so strange. It’s a proportion we aren’t used to.
Additionally, what you may think is an owl’s ankle is probably the joint between its toes and midfoot. Owls’ toes can be almost half as long as their thigh bone.
5. Owls have feathers even on their legs
There are many reasons why leg feathers are crucial for owls. Adult owls grow feathers on their legs to retain heat in cold environments and to protect their delicate skin from injury. Some have feathers on their feet as well, while others do not.
Having feathers on their legs reduces the sound owls make when swooping down to catch prey. It can also help the bird camouflage into its environment.
Snowy owls, which live in cold climates far to the north, have heavily feathered legs and feet. Meanwhile Burrowing Owls from the hot climates of Florida, Texas and Mexico have very bare looking legs in comparison.
6. Owlets hatch with bare pink legs
Baby owls are called owlets. They are helpless and blind when they hatch from eggs. that changes quickly. Owlets rapidly grow thicker down on those bare legs.
Depending on what species of owlet, the owl may grow feathers faster or slower. It is more likely that owlets in colder environments will grow thick down along their legs than those owls in temperate and tropical climates.
During the phase of development where the babies are covered in fluffy down, but haven’t yet grown in their adult feathers, they can appear quite slender. Their legs look longer and their whole body may appear tall and thin compared to their parent.
However this is just an illusion, as the adults have the same proportions but appear rounder with shorter legs because their layers of adult feathers really bulk up the appearance of their shape.
7. Owls can walk and even run
Owls’ strong legs allow them to walk and even run around while on the ground. It isn’t optimal, considering they can’t lash out at prey very well while they’re standing, but it helps them hop from branch to branch and get from one place to another.
Burrowing owls are more adapted to ground-dwelling life. Their legs are powerful and they can run easily in and out of extensive underground burrows. Sometimes, they even run after and catch lizards on the ground.
8. Owls “fish” with their legs
Some owls, like the Snowy Owl, catch fish by using their legs. John Audubon himself saw the bird lay down flat on a rock near a stream and wait for a fish to get close to the surface of the water. When it did so, the owl quickly lashed out with its talons, caught the fish, and ate it.
Other species of owl can hunt fish by perching on a branch nearby a stream or lake. Once they see their quarry, they fly down, skim the top of the water with their talons, and grab it.
9. Owls often use their feet like hands
When an owl catches a mouse or bird, it uses its feet and legs to feed itself. It may fly back to a tree or even consume the prey right where it landed. Using its talons, the owl guides the prey to its beak. It will usually swallow its dinner whole.
Parent owls use their legs to hold prey still while they rip off pieces of meat to feed their chicks. Once owlets grow old enough to swallow food whole, they will grab prey from their parents’ talons.
10. Owl Feet can “rachet” onto a perch so they can relax their muscles when they rest or sleep.
If you had to sleep while perched on a set of monkey bars, could you do it? Owls can do so with ease! Their legs and feet are specially adapted to perching on narrow branches and ledges. While human hands are open when relaxed, owl feet are closed when they relax. This makes it easy to spend hours tightly grasping a tree branch.
The legs of an owl may be hidden by a thick layer of down and outer feathers, but they are still there! From catching prey to helping insulate the bird against cold temperatures, an owl’s legs are an indispensable part of what makes it such an efficient, graceful hunter.
Anna is a wildlife biologist who graduated from Texas A&M in 2020. She enjoys feeding, studying, and taking photos of wild birds and hummingbirds. She once worked as the hummingbird department manager at a Wild Birds Unlimited store.