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9 superb owl facts you need to know

This is the weekend when all your friends are talking about the superb owl.

No one can deny that the superb owl is a national obsession. It's trending on Twitter and lighting up Facebook — some Las Vegas bookies are even taking superb owl bets. So we've put together these superb owl facts to explain the majestic bird of prey everyone is talking about.

1) Teddy Roosevelt kept a superb owl as a pet

Theodore Roosevelt had a long history with owls, both as pets and trophies.

You can still see Roosevelt's mounted snowy owl at the American Museum of Natural History (Roosevelt found the owl in Oyster Bay on Long Island). His interest wasn't limited to taxidermied birds, either — when he moved into the White House, Roosevelt brought a vast menagerie that included a one-legged rooster, a pony, a pig, and, yes, a barn owl named Moses. The owl traveled around the world with Roosevelt and his children.

Picasso holding an owl.

Picasso holding an owl. (Getty Images)

Roosevelt wasn't the only famous person who kept an owl as a pet. Pablo Picasso once took in an injured owl, bandaged its claw, and gave it a home in his kitchen. Picasso liked to stick his fingers inside the owl's cage and get love nips from his friend. The artist felt a deeper connection to owls, as well, and said that his owl-like appearance was due to owls being his ancestors.

For the record, it's probably a bad idea to keep an owl as a pet. They don't like being tied up and are difficult to take care of. During the Harry Potter craze, hundreds of people bought pet owls — only to abandon them later.

2) Superb owls can be trained to hunt

As you might expect, falconry usually involves falcons. But some owls, including barn owls, eagle owls, and great horned owls, can also be trained to hunt. While falcons and other birds of prey are active during the day and prized for their sight, nocturnal owls are valued for their sense of hearing. People might use them to hunt rodents, small birds, or very small game.

Norfolk Falconry focuses on owls, using the birds of prey to give curious people an introduction to falconry. However, owls are generally considered more difficult to train and impractical due to their nocturnal behavior.

3) Owls were probably the first "tail" on a coin

An Athenian owl coin.

An Athenian owl coin. (CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

It's difficult to imagine coins without a head and tail. And the very first tail was probably an owl.

The Athenian owl coin featured Athena's head on the front and an owl — a symbol of Athens and wisdom — on the back. The silver coin was very valuable and was used internationally for large transactions. Starting in 512 BC, the coin had more than 400 years of active circulation, and that consistent use helped it come to represent coins in general. Undoubtedly, its long tenure helped cement the idea of what the front and back of a coin should look like.

Fittingly, owl fan Theodore Roosevelt kept one of the coins in his pocket, and it's believed to have inspired coinage design in the early 20th century.

4) Owl pellets are surprisingly educational

Barn owl pellets

Barn owl pellets. (Pellets, Inc)

Owl pellets are regurgitated waste that owls cannot digest, and they often contain the bones of animals — making them great for study in the classroom. Barn owls mostly eat mice or voles, though occasionally their pellets will contain even weirder things, like crawfish.

Educational pellets have even become a thriving business. Since 1983, Bret Gaussoin of Pellets Inc. has been collecting and selling owl pellets for dissection in schools. "When I was in college, one of my professors actually created this lab dissecting barn owl pellets in the classroom," he told me. "I found some owl pellets and gave him a bread bag full, and he wrote me a check. Within a couple of years, I was his biggest collector."

As for where he gets the owl waste? "We have pellets from almost every state west of the Mississippi," he said. "What makes barn owl pelleting work is that these birds like to sit in exactly the same spot to roost every day. So these pellets literally can accumulate in a pile underneath them."

Back in the 1980s, barns were a popular collection spot. "But now these old barns are disintegrating or falling apart," he says. "People have learned how to find birds in wild settings — certain types of trees, cliffs, that sort of thing."

5) There are superb owl halftime shows

Rice University is lucky enough to have the Marching Owl Band perform its halftime show during football games. Originally, an ad hoc band would storm the field at halftime and do "the snake dance." From there, it grew into the MOB familiar to Rice students and alums today. In the early 1970s, the MOB became a more blatantly satirical "scatter band," with fun music and informal style.

Today, the MOB is distinguished by its unique and funny style, its sartorial quirks (members wear tuxedo-style outfits rather than martial gear), and general strangeness. However, as unique as the MOB is, the very traditional rivalry with the Texas A&M Aggies still animates its performances.

6) The world's most powerful leaders (supposedly) congregate under a 40-foot concrete owl

The giant owl.

The giant owl at Bohemian Grove. (Wikimedia Commons)

Owls aren't just a symbol of wisdom — according to conspiracy theorists, one owl is at the center of the Illuminati.

Every year in July, some of society's most powerful men reportedly meet at a Monte Rio, California, enclave to network, kick back, and possibly plan the fate of the world. Past attendees have included Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and the Manhattan Project was conceived there in 1942. And, as it happens, the enclave features a giant 40-foot concrete owl known as the "Great Owl of Bohemia."

The owl, sculpted by Haig Patigian in the 1920s, is one of the focal points of the retreat, and it stands over the opening ceremony, which is called "the Cremation of Care" (in which an effigy of a child called "Dull Care" is sacrificed and burned on the lake. None of that is a typo).

Because the retreat remains a closely guarded secret, it's tough to know how influential it is today. You can decide whether you want to wade into the conspiracy theories, but whatever goes down there, an owl will be watching over it.

7) In New York, fake owls were once used to scare pigeons

Birds of prey, like owls, can be frightening to other birds. Therefore, fake owl decoys are used to try to scare away pigeons. In 1986, there were more than 30 owls scattered around White Plains, New York, for this purpose. The strategy was popular in Manhattan, as well.

Unfortunately, the pigeons wised up to the fake owls, which were too stationary. Today, a company called Robop tries to solve that problem with modern robotic falcons that move their heads and produce simulated birdcalls.

8) The barn owl can come surprisingly close to echolocation

A barn owl in flight.

A barn owl in flight. (UniversalImagesGroup/Contributor)

Bats are known for using echolocation, which is the use of biological sonar to "see" in the dark. As it turns out, owls do something surprisingly similar, using their asymmetric ears to aid in the "acoustic location of prey." That's the important reason one of the owl's ears is higher than the other.

A barn owl's unique ears allow it to pinpoint sound within one degree both horizontally and vertically. Because the sounds arrive at each ear at a different time, the owl can tell where the prey is. Its unique facial ruff helps filter sound, as well.

9) This is how you weigh an owl. It would be the highlight of any superb owl party.

An owl ready to be weighed.

An owl ready to be weighed. (UNM)

Owls are very light, and baby owls are even lighter. For example, the Northern saw-whet owl weighs just 65 to 100 grams — or the weight of about 13 quarters. The heaviest North American owl, on average, is the snowy owl, which tops out at around 6.5 pounds.

To weigh the animals, they need to be wrapped so they won't fly away (a struggle with all animals).

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