The better to see you with- motion parallax in young owls
May 26, 2022
If you spend some time watching any young owls, you will probably notice them bobbing their heads around, moving side-to-side, or even turning their heads completely sideways. Are they just being silly, or cute? Dancing? Nope, they’re just figuring out how to fine-tune their sophisticated vision and hearing abilities!
Check out ORI’s Great Horned Owl live cam to see the two young owls as they start their first explorations out of the nest
In this video (below), the two Great Horned Owl chicks can be seen bobbing and moving their heads as they look out from their nest at dusk.
Owls are not really able to move their eyes in their sockets*, so they have to move their entire heads in a somewhat exaggerated manner to change their field of view. This bobbing and head-swaying motion is called motion parallax, and it helps birds (not just owls) more accurately judge distances. As they move their heads around like that, they are changing their visual perspectives, which helps them figure out how far away different objects are. This behavior also helps owls pin-point sounds (like the rustling of a vole under the leaf litter). Adult owls will also move their heads around like this, but the behavior is much more exaggerated in young owls that are still developing their senses and knowledge of their environment.
In this video (below), the two Great Horned Owl chicks are in the nest with their mother, Wonky (so named years ago by cam viewers because on of her pupils was damaged and now is permanently dilated). This injury does not seem to impact her hunting abilities in anyway, and she and her mate have successfully raised chicks in this area every year for many years. One of the chicks is standing on top of a gull that was killed by one of the adult Great Horned Owls and brought to the nest to feed the chicks. There is a nesting colony nearby at Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge.
Read more about motion parallax in owls:
“Why do owls bob their heads? (Owl eyes biology & meaning)” from Nature Mentoring
“Bobbing for Owls” from Animals Misbehaving: Musings on Animal Behavior
“Juvenile Burrowing Owl Parallaxing” from Feathered Photography
Mini-review: “Behavioural-analytical studies of the role of head movements in depth perception in insects, birds and mammals” by Karl Kral, published in Behavioural Processes
*more details on this in “Bobbing for Owls”