In Honor of the Super Bowl, the 16 Most Superb Owls of All Time

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This little guy is ready for the SuperbOwl. Jamal Saidi/Reuters

For the sake of argument, let's pretend for a moment we're owls. I'm an owl.

Great! Nice soft feathers for quiet flying, a predilection for the eventide and dope night vision. Also wisdom. Loads. Let's find some small live animals to eat.

But first, consider this: On Sunday, more than 100 million humans will gather near illuminated screens in each other's houses, at bars and auditoriums and even churches for a peculiar kind of worship. Eyes will fixate on images of men in pads knocking each other down and throwing around a spheroid ball while dancing women cheer them.

Our kind gets this much attention only during a creepy ritual at a super-elite boys' club in Northern California called Bohemian Grove, where Masters of the Universe gather together to torch a 40-foot owl. But I'm getting ahead of myself, and that's some seriously sordid attention we don't appreciate.

Being an owl-for-the-moment and a fan of (human) words, I recently noticed that by shifting a space in the title of Sunday's Big Game, you get "The Superb Owl."

Let that sink in for a moment. The superb owl! But I think we can all agree that statement is redundant, is it not? It's like saying "ATM machine." Or "what are you getting at?" when your quizzical expression, not unlike that of an incredulous owl, I imagine, speaks for itself.

Point is this: Owls are marvelous, and this "sporting" event appears to be named for us after all. So, without further ado, let us celebrate THE MOST SUPERB OWLS.

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A burrowing owl making a home out of a piece of buried pipe. Mr Snrub / Wikimedia Commons CC3.0

1. The burrowing owl

Let's start near to the ground. Might as well. I have to meet you humans where you are. The burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) is a proper-looking type, with festive white "eyebrows," and lives throughout southwestern North America, Florida and Latin America. It makes homes in the old burrows of animals like ground squirrels. They may also eat ground squirrels. In other words, they have no trouble devouring these rodents and stealing their homes.

The burrowing owl is known for its long legs. Look at this feathered fellow:

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A burrowing owl in Florida. Dori via Wikimedia Commons CC3.0

The raptors also have a habit of stuffing their burrow with dung, which acts as a good insulator and may attract insects, which they also eat, as little living snacks.

2. Blakiston's fish owl

Most owls, of course, do not live in the ground but are rather arboreal, roosting on branches or in cavities within trees. That goes for the world's biggest owl. I'll let Scientific American's John Platt (a friend of the owls) describe them: "With a body the size of a small child and a wingspan of up to two meters, the Blakiston's fish owl (Bubo blakistoni) is the largest owl in the world," he wrote. "It is also one of the rarest, shiest and least studied."

As Platt describes in his article, they need old-growth forest to survive and are under threat from logging and habitat destruction.

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A Blakiston’s fish owl hunting in winter. Robert tdc via Wikimedia Commons CC2.0

3. Barred Owl

A classic. This large owl found throughout Canada and the eastern U.S. makes the type of loud hoot you hear in movies, so you probably know whoooooo I'm talking about. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology explains: "The Barred Owl's hooting call, [which sounds like] "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?," is a classic sound of old forests and treed swamps. But this attractive owl, with soulful brown eyes and brown-and-white-striped plumage, can also pass completely unnoticed as it flies noiselessly through the dense canopy or snoozes on a tree limb."

4. Night owls

I'm going to take a little liberty here with the term owl. A new study in Current Biology suggests that night owls, or people who stay up late, tend to have their athletic peak in the evening, whereas early risers peak in the early- to mid-afternoon. This suggests that the team in the Super Bowl with more "night owls" could have a slight advantage, CBS News suggests, though this seems a bit of a stretch. I've got to give the advantage to the Seahawks, merely because I'm also a bird of prey.

And while we're on the topic of the Super Bowl, let me say that it deeply frightens us owls that this Sunday you humans will devour 1.25 billion chicken wings, or more than 600 million birds. Leave a few for us, OK? (Members of owl-kind will eat hens, given the chance.)

5. The birds forced to live in owl cafés

You may have heard of "cat cafés," wherein felines lounge about coffee shops and get petted by patrons. There also apparently owl cafés, at least in Japan. We would all love to hang out with owls. But this is a terrible and in-owl-mane idea, since the birds like the dark, solace and not being messed with by caffeinated humans, and—to let you in on a little secret—they are rabid Luddites that can't stand the presence of laptops being typed upon. They deserve a spot on this list for not pecking out the eyes of more café voyeurs.

6. The Tootsie Pop Owl

Remember this guy? He told us that it takes three licks to get to the middle of a Tootsie Pop. Far be it for this wise old owl to endorse a corporate product. But you've got to admit, the Tootsie Pop Owl is really a reflection of us all. We want to resist the Tootsie. We do not resist. One lick, two licks, three strikes; the Tootsie is gone. Speaking of three strikes, that brings us to...

7. Bob "Hoot" Gibson

I'm not sure how St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson earned the nickname "Hoot." Wikipedia suggests that it's a reference to an old movie star of the same name. But let's just assume that it has something to do with owls. Besides, this Hall of Famer is one of my dad's favorite players. He won nine Golden Gloves in a row, from 1965 to 1973, and has the record for most strikeouts in a World Series game (17). If football employed a small white spherical ball, he would probably be better at the quarterback position than Tom Brady and Russell Wilson combined. Gibson was known for his precise ball control, brushing players off who were crowding the plate and a reputation for not being trifled with. Like owls. That play baseball.

8. Newly discovered species

It's likely that most species of owls here on Earth have already been discovered, but scientists do occasionally find a new one. In a study published this month in the journal Zootaxa, researchers analyzed the genes of what they thought was a Hume's owl and found out that it was really quite different. They named the new species, which is found in the deserts of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other nearby countries, the desert tawny owl (Strix aluco).

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The newfound Rinjani scops owl, or Otus jolandae. Philippe Verbelen / PLOS ONE

In a 2013 study, researchers analyzed owl calls on the Indonesian island of Lombok and realized that one group of birds that they thought were Moluccan Scops Owls (Otus magicus) were actually a previously undescribed variety, which they named the Rinjani Scops Owl (Otus jolandae).

9. Hedwig/snowy owls

But why settle for magicus when you can have magic! Hedwig is well known to fans of the Harry Potter books and movies as the protagonist's trusty delivery owl and pet/loyal companion. She was indeed a superb owl for her loyalty, skill at delivering parcels and excellence at catching frogs.

Hedwig was a snowy owl, a beautiful species that spends its summer in the Arctic tundra—their white coat allows them to blend in with snowy environs. In the past few years, snowy owls have been seen farther south than usual in the winter, in migrations called irruptions (due perhaps to the effects of climate change on the populations of their main food source, lemmings). These snow-loving creatures have been seen as far south as Bermuda.

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Close shot of a snowy owl during a 2005 bird exhibition in Burgos, northern Spain. Felix Ordonez / REUTERS

10. Northern pygmy owl

This bird has false eyespots on the back of its neck, to convince would-be predators that the northern pygmy owl CAN SEE EVERYTHING at all times. Respect.

11. O.W.L.s

Ordinary Wizarding Level exams (O.W.L.s) are subject-specific tests taken during a student's fifth year at Hogwarts. What's that you say—Harry Potter is fiction? And why would a test be "superb"? Well, get off your high horse, friend, because we owls are fans of novels, and literacy. There is also a muggle meaning for the acronym O.W.L.s: Oral and Written Language Skills, a "highly regarded test [that] offers an integrated, global approach to oral and written language assessment." But that sounds considerably more boring than an examination on how to properly deal with fanged geraniums.

OWL can also refer to a Scrabble player's "Official Word List." Who would appreciate the whole wordplay thing that got us here in the first place.

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An elf owl in Arizona. BBODO via Wikimedia Commons

12. Elf owls

These little buggers, which get as short as 12 centimeters (five inches) tall, are the smallest owls in the world. They live in the Southwest U.S. and Mexico, are usually monogamous and live in hollows within saguaro cacti, alligator junipers or other trees.

13. The Powerful Owl

This species easily wins "best owl name." It lives in eastern Australia, and its body shape makes it look a little bit more like a (sea?)hawk than an owl proper. Here is a terrifying photo of one at night, its eyes reflecting light:

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A powerful owl on a suburban TV aerial in Australia. Poyt448 via Wikimedia Commons Public domain

They are the dominant nocturnal predators in their range and eat marsupials like possums, sugar gliders and even young koalas! Powerful indeed.

14. Barn owls

These magnificent birds have white faces and dark eyes. They fly almost silently at night and are voracious rodent predators. A breeding pair can eat as many as 1,000 mice during the nesting season. They find homes in abandoned barns and dense tree cover.

15. Noam Chomsky

Whoa there, mister. Are you actually suggesting that famous linguist Noam Chomsky is a hollow-boned bird of prey?

Many have called ol' Owl Chomsky wise and his wit sharp, his critiques vicious. More to the point, he attended Oak Lane Country Day School as a youth, during which time it was run by Temple University, whose mascot is—surprise!—the owl. In his writing, he has also made reference to the next item on our list…

16. The Owl of Minerva/Owl of Athena

In Greek and later Roman traditions, Athena (Minerva to the Romans) was often associated and depicted with owls. Both were known for their wisdom: Owls, of course, can see in the dark—a metaphor for the ability to see and know what others cannot.

The genus of owls known as Athene (related to Athena) includes the aforementioned burrowing owls and a species called little owls (Athene noctua), which were familiar in ancient Greece and Rome and live throughout Europe and central Asia.

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Athena, the little owl that belonged to nurse Florence Nightingale, is pictured on display at London’s Florence Nightingale Museum in July 2004. Toby Melville / REUTERS

German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote once that "the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk." What he meant, according to cultural historian Timothy Ryback, is that "philosophizing can begin only after events have run their course."

And on that note, I shall put off any more philosophizing until another time. After all, a "Monday morning owl" would be wiser than a "Monday morning quarterback" any day of the week. But for now, I'll leave you to your "sports." Though we all know what Sunday's Superb Owl is really all about.

In Honor of the Super Bowl, the 16 Most Superb Owls of All Time | Tech & Science