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In recent years, we have formed a consensus that owls are cute. Suddenly, there are owl plush toys, cute owl postcards, and owl greeting cards everywhere. Go to Youtube and type “cute owl” into the search engine and numerous clips show up of owls being — well, cute. We often tend to forget that all owls are predators and that they lead pretty tough lives. They certainly aren’t trying to be cute even if we see them that way.
Of all of the owls that I see and photograph Burrowing Owls seem to be the most susceptible to being called cute. Perhaps it’s their very big eyes and their soft plumage or perhaps it’s because their behavior, extremely serious for them, comes across as cute and comical to us.
Here are a few images I made of Burrowing Owls last Sunday. In the first image the owl seems to be doing its best impression of a plush toy.
In fact, the bird had retreated from a perch much closer to my car as I drove slowly by. The owl wasn’t being cute, it was being wary.
In the second and third images the owls seem to be doing their best to amuse the photographer by tilting their heads at odd angles.
One can be tempted to smile at this behavior (I certainly did), but there’s a reason for it having nothing to do with cuteness. Owls have eyes that are huge in proportion to the size of their heads. Their eyes are so huge that there is no room in their skulls for the muscles that mammals and humans possess that enable us to move our eyes from side to side or up and down. Rather, owls’ eyes are fixed. So, an owl often tilts its head as these owls are doing in order to get a better angle on or more perspective of whatever it is that it is looking at. These owls were checking out the photographers in my car to determine whether we posed a threat to them.
And, finally, there’s this:
I laugh whenever I look at this image but the owls were being very serious when I made it. When we first approached these owls they were sitting on the concrete rim of an irrigation canal. Their burrow is out of sight, just behind the rim. When the owls saw us, they ducked down into their burrow. After a moment, however, they raised their heads just enough to get a look at us without surrendering the protection afforded by the rim and the burrow.
So, yes, owls can come across as cute but their behavior isn’t motivated by a desire to please or amuse us. What is cute for us is serious business for them.
Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting. First three images ISO 640. First image, f6.3 @ 1/1600. Second and third images, f8 @ 1/1000. Fourth image, ISO 500, f7.1 @ 1/2000.