Have you ever seen that weird head bobbing movement owls make?
Recently I’ve had multiple people describe encounters they had with owls bobbing their heads.
And it just so happens I caught some great video footage of young Barred Owls doing this exact head bobbing while learning to hunt crickets in the yard.
So I figured this is the perfect opportunity to talk about why owls bob their heads, what it tells us and even how you can use this head bobbing to sharpen your own senses in nature.
Aside from the obvious cute factor, there is actually a practical reason behind why owls bob their heads this way.
Being nocturnal predators, owls have evolved incredibly large eyes that are so big they can’t even move in the eye sockets.
This means owls have to move their entire head in order to change visual perspectives, study their surroundings and accurately judge distances.
It looks a bit goofy sometimes, but this head bobbing behavior also provides some amazing clues about how owls develop “super senses”.
So let’s explore what’s actually happening when owls bob their heads and how you can emulate their strategies to heighten your own perceptual skills in nature.
What Owls See When They Bob Their Heads
If you want to get a real sense for what owls are actually seeing when they bob their heads, try this simple visual sense exercise:
First – Fixate your gaze on a single point somewhere out in the distance.
Focusing on a single point in the distance will prevent your eyes from moving around in the socket and activate your peripheral vision (like an owl).
Next – Move your head like you’re emulating an owl and pay careful attention to what happens to the objects in your peripheral vision.
Notice how objects that are close to you seem to shift positions in your visual field very quickly, while objects that are further away don’t change their positions much at all.
In scientific terms, this effect is called motion parallax, and this is likely what owls are using to judge the exact distances of small prey animals like voles hiding in tall grass.
This is where we start to see the real purpose of head bobbing and how it fits into the owl’s hunting & survival strategy.
Head Bobbing As A Hunting & Survival Strategy
Owls are incredibly skilled hunters with a unique nocturnal strategy that relies on absolute stealth, precision & timing in very low light conditions.
In the following video, you can really see how the head bobbing fits into the owl’s hunting strategy (study) as they triangulate the exact position of crickets and katydids on the lawn.
As we can plainly see from watching owl behavior, the reason for all these head movements is that it helps them see better for hunting and survival.
Another thing I’ve noticed from personal experience is these dramatic head movements seem to most likely be made by juvenile owls in the early stages of developing their hunting skills.
As owls become more mature and experienced, these head bobbing movements get increasingly more subtle, which could support the idea that head bobbing helps young owls learn perceptual awareness.
Even beyond the behavioral side however, we can gain even more insight by studying these head movements in terms of biology that results in amazing night vision and the types of sense receptors in owl eyes.
The Biology of Owl Head Bobbing
In terms of biology, the reason for this head bobbing behavior is because of how owl eyes have adapted to being nocturnal predators.
Owls have amazing night vision, which comes from having an incredible number of rod receptors in their eyes. Rod receptors are extremely sensitive to low light environments.
These are peripheral vision receptors that enable a wide angle of alertness for even the slightest movements, which is great for spotting tiny mammals as they graze along the tall grass in open fields.
The downside is these rods are basically color-blind and require lots of space in the eye for the high numbers required to work in near complete darkness.
In order to fit the most rod receptors possible in their eyes, owls lose the ability to move their eyes in the sockets.
The extra space enables them to fit more rod receptors, but it removes their ability to manually focus their eyes.
This means owls need a specialized strategy to help them judge distance that replaces movement of the eye with movement of the entire head.
One of the fascinating things about this is humans have this capability too, but most people never learn how to develop it.
So let’s talk about how owl eyesight compares to humans and how you can “borrow” perceptual strategies from the owl to help you get more tuned with your environment.
Owl Eyesight Compared To Humans
It’s interesting to note that human eyes have the exact same type of visual sense receptors that enable owls to see in the dark & judge distance by bobbing their heads.
However, a big difference is that we also have an extra type of receptor called ‘cone receptors’ that are more dominant in humans, especially with people living modern electronic lifestyles.
Cone receptors specialize in seeing very fine details used for reading and writing, they’re also color sensitive and very efficient in terms of the eye space used.
However the downside of cone receptors is they require daylight conditions in order to work, and they tend to narrow our attention so we ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’.
Humans typically judge distance with our cone receptors by adjusting the focus of our eyes along an axis of visual depth.
You can feel this subtle adjustment in your eyes by focusing your gaze on something far away, then move the focal point to something much closer and feel what happens to your eyes.
If you’re attentive, you will feel a slight micro-movement of your eyes as they adjust.
This type of cone-based depth adjustment is something that owls cannot do so they compensate by moving their heads to generate the motion parallax effect (rod based depth perception).
It’s pretty cool to learn from owls that you can do this too, and it will help you activate an underdeveloped part of your visual perception that supercharges your night vision!
How To Develop Your Owl Eyes
One of my ongoing goals with nature mentoring is to inspire people towards activating the full potential of your senses in nature.
My philosophy is that by interacting with nature like an owl, we practice ancient sensory modalities that don’t normally get stimulated through modern lifestyles.
Our brains and nervous system are designed to be optimized in nature like our ancient ancestors who lived off the land.
And this is an amazing way to increase your appreciation of nature while sharpening how you engage with the great outdoors.
So here’s how to develop your owl eyes:
First – step outside and find a nice place to sit for a while (You can also practice indoors, but nature will provide a more stimulating environment whenever possible).
Next – fix your gaze on a point somewhere in front of you, and direct your attention to the outside edges of your visual field.
- Simply sit and observe your surroundings while staying present with your peripheral vision.
- Notice when practicing this exercise, you see less specific details, but you can take in the whole scene in a much more expanded state of awareness.
- Notice how your awareness of movement in the surroundings becomes enhanced.
- Your eyes will instantly track the gentle flow of wind blowing through tree leaves, or birds flying through the corner of your visual field without looking directly at them.
With practice, this type of vision enables you to track multiple moving elements simultaneously so you can more quickly discern the overall patterns of birds & wildlife.
Imagine yourself as an owl perched in a tree branch, looking out over the landscape and aware of everything, yet absolutely still.
Keeping in line with our theme of head bobbing, you can also play with little head movements to slowly massage your peripheral awareness.
Practice making these head movements more and more subtle so you can generate enough motion parallax to activate your rod receptors, but without calling too much attention to yourself.
- Practice your Owl Eyes during the day, and also try this out in low light conditions like dawn or dusk, or even the middle of the night.
- Notice that your night vision works better when you focus on using peripheral awareness.
- Don’t be surprised if animals come a lot closer to you than usual!
- You can think of this as like an owl meditation and notice how you feel a little bit wilder when you engage with nature this way.
So now you know why owls bob their heads… We discussed behavior, biology, how it all relates to hunting & night vision, and even how you can use this knowledge to develop your own senses in nature.
All that’s left now is for you get outside and find an owl in your local area to bob heads with!
Have fun out there and let me know how it goes!
What a great article! I look forward to trying out the “owl meditation”, especially in low light.
This is an especially good one, Brian! Filled with interesting facts and ideas. I am enjoying using my peripheral vision in nature! Thanks.