How Does An Owl Rotate Its Head? Explained In Detail

How Does An Owl Rotate Its Head?

Wide-eyed and round-faced, owls are mysterious night-dwellers seen as symbols of wisdom and intelligence, often leading princes on the right path in our fairy tales. 

And yes, they are pretty magical creatures, even if they cannot see the future in reality.

Owls are equipped with several physical abilities that make nocturnal activities much easier for them, and also make them such terrifying vicious predators. 

But among the more fascinating facts about them lies a slightly terrifying one fit for horror movies – their neck flexibility. 

An owl turning its head all the way back is not just a cartoon moment, it happens with almost all species of owls in real life. 

Many owls, including the barred owl and the great horned owl, have the ability to turn their head all the way to 270 degrees, both ways! 

This means that they could turn their head all the way left to look at their right side, and vice versa, which is doubly fascinating and horrifying. 

But as impromptu scientists, we must ask ourselves, how is this possible? 

How are they able to make such quick turns without causing permanent and even fatal damage to their neck arteries and veins? 

Why do they even need to do this in the first place? 

Well, today we are going to take a detailed look at everything you need to know about this peculiar habit of our hooting buddies!

How Does An Owl Rotate Its Neck Without Harming Itself?

The main concern scientists had with this habit of owls was as to how they did not simply have a stroke and die, as we humans would have. 

If humans attempted such a swivel, we would quickly tear the lining of arteries, leading to the formation of clots, and ultimately causing a stroke. 

It is not that owls have hardier vessel linings either, they are as fragile as humans and are susceptible to the simplest of tears and punctures. 

Two scientists at John Hopkins University School of Medicine joined to find out, by injecting 12 dead owls with red plastic and shimmering dye to preserve the dead vessels and see the insides better respectively.

Owl’s Have More Vertebrae = More Flexibility

Though this was previously known, one of the factors that play a huge role in increasing an owl’s neck flexibility is that they have twice the number of vertebrae in their neck as we do. 

We have a total of seven, while owls have fourteen cervical vertebrae.

Owls Have Wider Foramina

A new detail they found was that the owl’s neck vertebrae or neck bones had holes within them which are much larger than the case in most birds and humans. 

The intervertebral foramina is a foramen between two cervical vertebrae, through which the canals pass. 

This hole was found to be about 10 times larger in diameter as compared to the artery, thus these canals add some cushioning to the twisting head mechanism by acting as air pockets.

Vertebral Artery Enters Higher

They also noticed another anatomical adaptation wherein the vertebral artery enters through the 12th cavity when counted from the top. 

This is in contrast to the usual case in other birds, where it enters through the 14th vertebrae. This ensures that the vertebral artery has some more room for slack.

Owls Have Unobstructed Blood Flow To The Brain 

Though all three of the above adaptations explain the flexibility, they still did not explain why the blood does not get cut off when the owl makes such sharp and sudden swivels. 

To explain this, the scientists conducted further experimentation and the result was astonishing. 

Usually, arteries go from thick to thin the further they move away from the heart. In owls though, they noticed that the vertebral artery enlarges as it approaches the brain. 

The scientists speculate that this is an adaptation so that the enlarged areas can act as a reservoir for excess pooled blood when the brain gets cut off during the head twisting.

There are also highly intersecting connections between the carotid and vertebral arteries which will ensure blood flow to the brain even if one artery gets blocked.

Why Do Owls Rotate Their Necks?

Now that we know the how of it, we desperately need to know: why do owls have to twist their head to such extreme levels? 

Unlike human beings, where we can move our eyeballs within the socket to our heart’s content, owls have tubular eyes that are fixed on its head. 

This means that they cannot simply move their eyeballs and thus need to move their entire heads when looking from side to side. 

These tubular eyes are incredibly efficient for far sight, as they act kind of like a telescope and help the bird view prey from a good distance away.

Can Owls Rotate Their Heads To 360 Degrees?

Not quite, but pretty close! In an eerie horror movie-esque display, owls have the ability to turn their heads a full 270 degrees on both sides! 

This means that they can look all the way to the left to see their right side and vice versa. 

They cannot turn their head all the way around back to the front in a 360 though, as the cartoons would have you believe!

Can Owls Rotate Their Heads Upside Down?


Shockingly yes! Again this is not a full 360 degrees motion, but they can twist their head to the same 270 degrees! 

Just as we move our gaze up, down, and to the sides while we are tracking an object, owls move their entire heads and thus can rotate their heads while they are busy following something with their eyes. 

A crucial part of their skeletal system called the pivotal joint is what allows for this broad range of movements.


So that was the eerily fascinating world of the highly flexible heads of owls! 

Owls are magical creatures, with a world of knowledge hidden within their thick plumage and their big round eyes. 

We hope you enjoyed this little venture into their vast and wonderful world, and that you learned something new!

Thank you for reading!

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