An owl is 70% feathers

April 24, 2012 • 11:46 am

These photos are unposted remnants from Owl Week. Now I’m not going to put the full weight of my academic reputation behind these photos/diagrams, but if they’re correct it’s really cool.  This is a great grey owl (Strix nebulosa), with the fleshy parts shown in silhouette inside the feathers.  It’s from the Wikipedia article on that species.

Having bathed cats in my life, and seen them turn into large rats when they’re wet, I don’t doubt this too much.  I conclude that these birds are really parrots in owl suits.

UPDATE: Alert reader Hayden Googled “owl x-rays” and found this x-ray of a barn owl from the East Oregonian, which he’s linked to below. I thought it was good enough to put above the fold, for it proves that owls are indeed quite scrawny:

And here’s a barn owl all feathered and fluffy (photo by Nefarostock):


27 thoughts on “An owl is 70% feathers

  1. Not a very effective body-to-feather ratio, unless I am tricked into believing owls are somewhat outstanding here.

    Is that to make the flight silent during hunts? If so, maybe diurnal owls have thinner feathering.

    1. Such small bodies probably lose body heat faster. Maybe all the feather volume helps regulate body temperature.

      Just a guess, though admittedly not a very educated one.

    2. Such scrawny bodies probably lose heat quickly. Maybe the extra feather volume helps regulate body temperature.

      Just a guess, and admittedly not a very educated one.

    3. I believe the silent flight is due to special feathers along the leading edge of the owl wing. They look a bit like hairs & stick up above the edge ~ this is from memory & I don’t know if it’s true nor why it would work. I assume that any modification that reduces the breakup of airflow will increase flight efficiency & reduce noise. Modern jetliners have verticals at the wingtips to reduce wingtip air vortexes ~ not sure that’s the same effect though.

  2. Wow. I’ve admired your courage for your outspoken stances on atheism, free will, etc. But you’ve bathed cats??? I have flown in to hurricanes, collected samples from active volcanoes, been in disaster zones all over the world. Heck, I kicked the San Andreas fault once. But I’m not brave enough to give my cats a bath.

    1. I’ve bathed lots of cats. I once worked for a vet and had to do lots of flea baths. But the worst cat I ever bathed was my very own Sagan. She turned into an evil creature at bathtime. Later she would be extra sweet to me as if to apologize. (I didn’t bathe that one much–lots of flea combing and damp towels.)

  3. I conclude that these birds are really parrots in owl suits.

    +1, but really, how close are owls and parrots? (Too tired to try to look this up tonite.)

  4. Great gray owls are semi-famous for having about the highest ratio of fluff to beef among the owls. They look big, but are surprisingly light. Because of all that down, they’re restricted to fairly cool/cold places. I wonder if burrowing owls, for example, might fill their coats better.

  5. They aren’t really very close, Hempenstein. Several recent studies suggest that parrots are actually closest to the songbirds (Passeriformes), while owls might be the sister group of mousebirds (Coliiformes). You have to go back pretty far to find a common ancestor for owls and the parrot/songbird branch.

  6. What’s most interesting to me about this is, the flattened face which is so unique to them appears to be just about all feathering. I would’ve thought there was more significant developmental changes associated with it – i.e. changes to bone or muscle structures. But evidently not!

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