By now, everyone has surely seen the memes and photos making the rounds on the various social media platforms that show how “short” owl legs really are. Most people were freaked out.
How I learned about owl legs has nothing to do with pics and memes on Facebook. There is an owl that lives next to my property and it must have had an owlet (a baby owl) at some stage.
When I took a morning walk one day, I saw the baby owl on the ground. It was injured, and since I didn’t know a lot about owls, I called my local vet to ask for advice.
It turns out the owlet broke its legal when it fell out of the nest. Luckily, our local vet is an angel and got the baby owl the help it needed … and so I learned a lot about owls and their legs.
Why Do Owls Have Short Legs?
Owls only appear to have short legs, but they possess long powerful legs. An owl’s legs could be anywhere between 1/3 to half of their body size, if not slightly longer. This is to help them balance and stabilize their weight during flight. These long legs also help owls run fast and kill their prey.
About Owls and Their (Hidden) Legs
Before I found the baby owl and the vet shared what she knew of their legs, I also would have thought that owls had really short legs. After all, you mostly just see their claws, ankles, and their lower legs.
Well, unless you know better.
So, owls actually have really long and skinny legs, but about 80% of their legs are hidden by their plumage of feathers (and owls have a lot of feathers!).
This is except for some owls like the burrowing owl, which bares its long legs (compared to its small body size) fully.
How Long Are Owl Legs
Depending on the owl species (and there are over 200), their legs can be as long as a third to half the size of their body. Most of their leg length is hidden underneath their feathers.
Owls have a double down coat to protect them from low temperatures, but this also keeps those legs of theirs well hidden.
Why Are Owl Legs Long
There are several reasons why an owls legs are long and skinny (and not short):
The legs of an owl appear to be quite delicate and slim; however, they house powerful muscles that help the bird hold their prey. These legs, together with the long feet, help an owl fly.
An owl won’t be able to fly if its weight isn’t correctly distributed, and the main consideration in how owls have adapted to fly is how their weight stays balanced and centralized.
One method to keep their weight distributed is to have the upper legs’ large muscles close to the body while the outer extremities are bony and light.
Owls can walk; however, they don’t spend the majority of their time walking about. They prefer sitting in tree branches, keeping an eye out for their next delicious meal.
The exception is the burrowing owl, which lives in holes under the ground. While they do sometimes hunt from the air, they mostly do so on the ground.
As a result, these owls are capable of walking and/or running at great speeds to help them chase and capture their prey.
Interestingly, I learned that owls, like humans, can also walk backward. The claw of an owl has three forward-facing talons and one backward-facing talon.
This structure gives owls balance and enables them to walk in different directions.
Owls can also run, but there isn’t much information available on just how fast these birds of prey can run.
Most owls hunt from the air, swooping down to catch their prey. The burrowing owl is the exception.
The talons of an owl are really powerful.
What I found fascinating is that a great horned owl’s talons have a pressure strength of between 200-500 PSI (pounds per square inch), which is similar to the grip strength of a bald eagle, which has the strongest grip strength at 400+ PSI.
This grip strength can easily crush an owl’s prey.
While the talons are capable of exerting approximately 30 pounds of pressure when squeezing a prey animal, it is the legs that are actually the driving force behind the lethalness of the talons.
The long legs of an owl are connected to their angled pelvis. This is a common characteristic in animals that hunt mainly with their feet (or claws).
The fibula in an owl’s leg is also long, helping the bird rotate its legs and feet. This rotation gives an owl more movement, which helps them catch their prey.
The length of an owl’s legs is also what helps it carry up to 4 times its size in weight. The great horned owl, for example sometimes hunts pet cats and small dogs.
So, if you’re that interested in what owls really eat, read all about it here.
The Owl With the Longest Legs
There isn’t a lot of information about what owl has the longest legs, but it’s believed that the eagle owl is one of the owl species with the longest legs. Why?
Because they are tall, and one of the tallest owls you’ll see in the world. This means that their legs could be between 20-30 inches long.
Frequently Asked Questions about Why Owls Have Short Legs
How long are the average owl legs?
The average length of a large-sized owl’s legs is between 20-30 inches.
Do owls have skinny legs?
Owls have long and skinny legs.
The Final Leg
Owls are probably most famous for their feathers, hooting sounds, rotating heads, and hypnotic eyes … that is, until you know that they have really skinny, long legs!
There are many reasons why owls have long legs, from helping them stabilize and balance their weight during flight to running and walking.
Perhaps the most interesting is how these legs and their powerful thigh muscles are the driving force behind the talons, which are capable of easily crushing a prey animal, and how these legs help the owl with greater movement and carry more than its own body weight in prey.
So now you know what’s hidden underneath all the layers of feathers of an owl … and I bet you’ll never think of an owl in quite the same way again.