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The otherworldly bird with its “own breed of genius”

A great grey owl: hearing with “few equivalents in the animal kingdom”. Getty

Owls have an “otherworldly aura”, says Rebecca Giggs in The Atlantic. Their calls are “ghostlike or inchoate”: of around 260 species, most are stealthily camouflaged and decked out with “decibel-dampening feathers” so the shrieks float without clear origin. Around 75% of their large, cortex-like forebrains are dedicated to hearing and vision, giving them “faculties so astounding in range and exactitude” that they seem a “variety of natural magic”. Their reactivity to sound has “few equivalents in the animal kingdom”: the great grey owl can not only pick up the swish of a vole’s footfall coming from a passage cored into the snowbank, but also figure out the elevation of the sound source, “so as to strike through the snow and hit that very point”. In the words of one biologist, their hearing is “its own breed of genius”.

Owls also have facial features that “map onto a human visage”. Their faces flex and feathers refashion to express alertness or relaxation. They play, especially juveniles. Young barn owls experience long spells of REM sleep, the part of the cycle associated with the “vivid and emotion-laden dreams in humans”, during which they cement skills they learn in the day. Male burrowing owls “festoon their earthen tunnel” with decorations: potato peels, nubs of concrete, old gloves and stolen fabric. But perhaps their most human-like quality is their ability to “swivel between symbolisms”: from summoning our “dark and powerful instincts” with their haunting howls, to “strutting and fluffing” to appeal to our whimsy. They’re every bit as “Janus-faced as we are”.