Have you seen pictures showing just how long owl foot are? Owls, it turns out, are much “leggier” than we can guess. In fact, seeing images of an owl's spindly limbs have the right to be little of a shock.

You are watching: How many legs do birds have

What's walking on here? Why perform owls have actually such long legs, and why walk this fact feel favor such a surprise?


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Short-eared Owl. Photograph by Menno Schaefer/Shutterstock


Standing on your toes

The first thing to consider is that practically all bird legs are longer than castle look at first glance.

Bird legs have actually the same general materials that ours do: toes, feet, ankles, shins, knees, and also thighs. Yet the relative proportions of each of these are very different.

When girlfriend look at a bird (the heron below, for example), the key backwards-facing joint that you see toward the middle of its leg is actually the ankle. The lower fifty percent of the visible leg, below the ankle, is that is foot. Rather than having multiple little bones in the middle of the foot choose we do, birds have a solitary long, slim bone (called a tarsometatarsus, if you want to success trivia points).


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Green Heron. Picture by ttp1001/Shutterstock


Above the ankle, comprising the upper half of the clearly shows leg, is the bird's shin (or tibiotarsus). Birds have knees, yet unlike us, your thighs space short and also tucked close to your bodies, so their knees and also upper legs are covert beneath their plumage. Together a result, us usually just see the reduced two-thirds or half of a bird's legs!

There are an excellent reasons because that birds to have this foot structure, i beg your pardon we'll acquire to in a moment. In the situation of owls, the long, fluffy human body feathers discovered on many types mean the owls do a great job the hiding your legs, frequently showing simply the tips of your toes.

(For the artists the end there: acquisition this anatomy right into account may aid with knowing how to place those foot on her bird drawings!)

Thin legs are great for…flying?

Owl legs are long, but perhaps even more surprising is exactly how thin castle are. Contrasted to the remainder of the animal, an owl's legs have the right to look extraordinarily slim and delicate! This, in addition to short thighs and also long feet, are primarily adaptations because that a solitary purpose: flight.


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Barn Owl. Picture by Kenneth Rush/Shutterstock


Flying is all about weight distribution and specifically around keeping weight centralized and balanced. (Imagine, for instance, how challenging it would be to balance an plane that had actually heavy soup tips.) One way that birds attain weight centralization is by maintaining the big muscles that the upper legs fairly compact and also close to the body, when the external extremities space light, bony, and controlled by stringy tendons.

While bird in basic have long, thin legs, over there is a many variation (this matches this, because that example). And also these differences can frequently tell us something about what a bird does, and about its natural history in general.

These foot are made for killing

While they might look cute, owls are vicious predators (see video clip below, if you need proof) Owls hunt every little thing from rodents and other tiny mammals come birds, reptiles, amphibians, huge moths, and also even fish. And their legs and also feet room the tools that they usage to catch and also kill their food. This is usually done through grabbing food in their talons and also constricting or stabbing it to death. Occasionally, extr blows are delivered using the beak. (Yikes. It's not difficult to imagine just how this plays out from a computer mouse or vole's perspective.)


This feet-first hunting strategy is comparable to that supplied by hawks and eagles, and also notably different from types like herons or kingfishers, which usage a head-first strategy and grab prey with their bills.

Subduing prey v their feet has the important advantage of keeping owls' heads and also eyes safely the end of harm's way. A solitary kick or scratch to the eye indigenous flailing prey could be devastating for a hunter that counts so greatly on that acute vision.

When it involves owl legs, long and also thin walk not mean delicate: Owl legs and talons deserve to be incredibly strong. If you watched the owl strike above, you currently have one idea of the form of prey an owl can bring off. Top feet first, it is asserted that a great Gray Owl deserve to punch with a tardy of snow solid enough to assistance the load of a 176-pound person. Not negative for a bird that just weighs around three pounds, or around as much as her laptop computer!

Cold extremities

There is one an ext thing to consider when it involves owls that live in chillier environments. The unique structure of your legs helps them to make it through in short temperatures: with the main muscles located close to the body and the reduced parts of the legs mainly made the bone and also tendon, this birds can permit their feet to acquire much cooler than the rest of your body without losing function or gaining frostbite.

For owls the live in these environments, prefer the an excellent Gray Owl or the Snowy Owl, feathering on the legs themselves, and long, thick feathers on the bird's belly, additionally helps to keep warmth.


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Snowy Owl legs. Photograph by Sharon Feragotti/Shutterstock


Great Gray Owls take it this fluffy insulation come an extreme. Your feathers act favor a giant down sleeping bag, obscuring the birds' true shape and size, while exposing only their eyes and the tips of your toes. And also those toe tips can get very cold there is no bothering the owl! While great Grays space the greatest owls in the human being by height, they weigh substantially much less than types like the good Horned Owl, i beg your pardon averages 25 percent shorter.

For us, this heavy insulation renders the actual size of a good Gray's foot even an ext unexpected once we have actually a opportunity to check out them.

But why carry out I save looking at this owl pictures?

So, from the purely technical side the things, owls have actually long legs since it's a an essential part that their searching strategy. Plus, those legs look an especially long due to the fact that they room so thin, a attribute of all birds that helps centralize weight away from their extremities. And, specifically for owls the live in cold climates, their legs are frequently hidden by fluffy body feathers, an interpretation that we rarely obtain to watch just just how long their legs really are. Yet all this details tho don't rather seem to define the very nice photos like these.

The factor for that, at the very least in part, might be native the way that this awkward pictures upend our normal ideas around owls.

Maybe it's your nocturnal actions or those large, forward-facing eyes that seem strangely similar to our own, but whatever the reason, over there is something about owls that captures our attention. Attention in this predators shows up again and again throughout cultures and also history. On the wall surfaces of France's Chauvet Cave, prehistoric artists outlined the unmistakable picture of an owl around 30,000 years ago. In old Greece, owls were icons of wisdom, a companion come the goddess Athena. Because that the Navajo, owls are more ominous, traditionally seen as bearers of negative news and associated with death. In pop culture, owls attribute prominently as every little thing from the messengers of take care of Potter to agency logos.


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Burrowing Owls. Picture by Tania Thompson/Shutterstock


Whether they room as emblems that wisdom or messengers of poor news, owls usually seem to it is in serious personalities in ours mythologies. Reverence is absolutely something ns feel anytime I'm lucky enough to view one. “Look, an owl!” is almost always attach by hushed tones and also a murmur the quiet appreciation. And for me, the human-like expression of the owls and the way these pictures upend our reverential associations are part of the funny of the long-legged owl photos.

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John C. Mittermeier is the director of Threatened types Outreach in ~ ABC. That works v ABC's partner in Bolivia and also helps to lead ABC's lost birds and also bird profession initiatives. You can contact him via twitter
johnmittermeier.