How Owls Twist Their Heads Almost 360 Degrees

In an Exorcist-style display of flexibility, owls can rotate their necks a maximum of 270 degrees without breaking blood vessels or tearing tendons.

To the untrained eye, it looks like a case of movie magic, but scientists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine now have data to explain the eerie skill that has baffled birders for years. (Check out National Geographic’s backyard bird identifier.)

Whereas people and other animals can simply move their eyes to follow an object or use peripheral vision to scan a room, owls must turn their heads for the same effect. These birds have fixed eye sockets, which means their eyeballs can’t rotate, forcing them to stretch their necks—a seemingly supernatural feat.

“In the case of birds, their systems are designed to handle that amount of movement,” said Eric Forsman, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, who was not part of the study.

“The tissue, the blood vessels are designed to flex—things don’t just snap.”

Turning Heads

Owls are more flexible than humans because a bird’s head is only connected by one socket pivot. People have two, which limits our ability to twist, Forsman added. Owls also have multiple vertebrae, the small bones that make up the neck and spine, helping them achieve a wide range of motion.

Yet, even with these skeletal advantages, a bird’s body shouldn’t be able to withstand such extreme levels of movement. In people, a spinning head would cause all kinds of internal bleeding and breakage.

For the new research, the Johns Hopkins team obtained 12 dead birds from educational centers and created 3-D images of the animals’ blood vessels and bones. The scientists also injected the carcasses with dye and liquified red plastic to preserve their arteries before dissection, according to a summary of their research on the U.S. National Science Foundation website.

The team discovered owls have backup arteries, which offer a fresh supply of nutrients when blood vessels get closed off by rapid turning. Their arteries also swell to collect any excess blood created in the process.

Eerie Ability Not Unique

It’s a powerful adaptive trait, Forsman said, but it’s not unique. Plenty of birds have a similar ability to look behind them. Red-tailed hawks, for example, are almost as flexible as their nocturnal cousins.

“There are lots of advantages to being able to look over your shoulder and see something coming—if you’re trying to avoid predators or detect prey,” he said. (Watch a video of an owl hunting prey.)

Owls might not be distinctive within the animal kingdom, but they do have the corner on Hollywood horror flicks. With their bulbous eyes and haunting calls, these birds can swivel their way from one thriller to the next.

The head-turning study won first place in the Posters category of the 2012 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge.

Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato is a science journalist who loves em dashes, ’80s music and parasites. She has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with concentrations in science journalism, photography, and radio reporting. Contact her at news@mbloudoff.com, and follow her on Twitter at @mbloudoff.
  • christopher

    cool stuff

  • Brett McPoyle

    Brilliant, I was hOWLING to find out about this one.

  • Mariana Almeida

    Amazing… =) For us, it’s fascinanting. For them, it’s “Evolution, evolution”…

  • Janet Elson

    Impressive, but 270 degrees is not ‘almost 360 degrees’ is it ? 🙂

  • Rodman M. Papros

    Honestly, I did not know owls are incapable of rotating their eyeballs. haha . . . cooooool!

  • elfigo moya

    If Owls cannot move their eyes, then it makes sense that they can rotate their neck 270 degrees. This absolutely is an adaptive trait. Natural selection has most definitely worked in the Owls favor. Only the strong survive, right? This article was a little dull, though. I will definitely do more research on this as should the people who wrote this article.

  • Edwin

    the picture is not clear at all even when i zoom in.

  • nikhil kumar rai

    Good but still i want to know what happen to the backup arteries after they get their head back to normal position… Do they still work…. And if these arteries don’t work then how they survive

  • Lovish Garlani

    Is there is any other organism with fixed eye socket. Why owls don’t able to see during day time ? Is it true?Is it due to their fixed eye socket?

  • Mr Nosh B. Cooper

    Appreciate your thorough description with Sketches of the Owls
    twisting their Heads almost 360 Degree. Worth reading

  • GiGi

    I was always wondering how could Owls turn their neck like that. Now, I know ! Such a great animal full of wisdom.

  • Tanamon Somchana

    In Thailand, many people were fear the owls because they like the ghost.

  • jesse

    How does this relate to the Indians belief in Owls accompanying spirits into the after life?

  • Serena

    WOW…nvr knew such things cud happen!!

  • Sasha

    thts sooooo cul………….how do they do it????? its soooooo incredible!!

  • Sasha

    Hey Janet, frm Australia…..its almost 360 degrees cuz its only 90 degrees less than 270!!!!! Not tht much!!!

  • putra k.

    o Hoo Hoo Hoo Ho… Who cooks for youu.. who cooks foor yoo .. who hoo..

    cute pic!!!

  • Shivani

    i have an assumption that the back-up arteries close up if the head is at it’s correct position, and as they say, the arteries are only in use when there is a close-up in the main vessels due to rotation. Therefore the rotated head must end up in a position which gives room for the back-up arteries to open up and vice verse.

  • nateino

    coolstorybro tell it again

  • kathleen hilman

    Fascinating! I have degenerative disc disease in my neck and what I would give to have just 1/4th the rotation abilities of the owl…wow!

  • hade soelaeman



    is there any other bird with same feature of rotation.
    what about any other animal reg. rotation


    is there any animal with same feature.

  • Priscilla lornam Akagbo

    Very helpful info, I’ve always wondered how they do it. I think its amazing and certainly unique. God is Amazing. 😀

  • siyabonga

    nice research bro this is a very good mathematical explanation especially for rotation in the foundation phase keep it up guys

  • Daniel babare

    Wow i taut al diz were jst film tricks nt knwin dey were real

  • Pres

    Way cool!

  • Ainy Gardose

    how amazing,,i really dont know that owl can do that as far as ,,,i know that only cat,,,now,,i have a certain knowledge to feature it out ..thank you

  • Gomez Addams

    270 is what percentage of 360?
    Math is hard, huh?
    Stay in school.

  • han

    Cool!! But anyways does the owl doesnt feel any pain when the vessels snap though

  • KSingh

    The earth as it continues to rotate teases the owl.”Swivel it,rotate it,stretch it, do yoga exercises but you can’t do what I can do.Keep trying to live up to the myth that you can rotate that
    wise head of yours 360*”

  • I don’t agree

  • Sylvia

    270 is 75% of 360 to answer someone’s comment.
    Interesting article on owls.

  • kayode

    nice n cool its adaptation.

  • ellen

    Eye SOCKETS are made of bone and are not hinged or jointed, so in people or owls, they do not move. Eye BALLS, on the other hand, can move. In owls, because of the size of the eyes compared to the size of the skull, there is no room for muscles that would move the eyeballs, so the eyes are stationary.

    This is pretty basic knowledge. Your error with this one basic thing makes me wonder about the rest of the article.

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