Great horned owl filmed swimming inside Lake, Michigan, a first as it was unknown owls can swim.
Owls have large forward-facing eyes and ear-holes; a hawk-like beak; a flat face; and usually a conspicuous circle of feathers, a facial disc, around each eye. The feathers making up this disc can be adjusted in order to sharply focus sounds that come from varying distances onto the owls’ asymmetrically placed ear cavities. Most birds of prey have eyes on the sides of their heads, but the stereoscopic nature of the owl’s forward-facing eyes permits the greater sense of depth perception necessary for low-light hunting. Although owls have binocular vision, their large eyes are fixed in their sockets—as are those of other birds—so they must turn their entire head to change views. As owls are farsighted, they are unable to see clearly anything within a few centimeters of their eyes. Caught prey can be felt by owls with the use of filoplumes—like feathers on the beak and feet that act as “feelers”. Their far vision, particularly in low light, is exceptionally good.
Owls can rotate their heads and necks as much as 270 degrees. Owls have fourteen neck vertebrae as compared to 7 in humans which makes their necks more flexible. They also have adaptations to their circulatory systems, permitting rotation without cutting off blood to the brain: the foramina in their vertebrae through which the vertebral arteries pass are about 10 times the diameter of the artery, instead of about the same size as the artery as in humans; the vertebral arteries enter the cervical vertebrae higher than in other birds, giving the vessels some slack; and the carotid arteries unite in a very large anastomosis or junction, the largest of any bird’s, preventing blood supply from being cut off while the neck is rotated. Other anastomoses between the carotid and vertebral arteries support this effect.