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Owl Leg Facts: Are They Really That Long? (& Why?)

Owl standing on the ground

Last Updated: September 20, 2022

It looks like someone never thought an owl's legs would be this long.

The thing is, we didn’t either!

These majestic owls really surprised us with their slender legs that they've hidden underneath their coat of feathers all along. Upon discovering things like these, our initial reactions would of course be surprised; but right after that comes a million questions rushing through our minds like “why are their legs so long?” and “what are these long legs for?”

Not to worry, we’ve got you covered! 

In this article, we’ll be answering every single question that may have popped into your mind upon discovering an owl’s long legs.

Now let’s get going.

What An Owl With Long Legs Is All About

Have you ever heard of the tibiotarsus?

No? Well, it's the longest bone in a bird’s body. And this bone is located on...

You guessed it, their 20-30 centimeter-long legs.

Like humans, owls have feet, toes, knees, and multiple other bones that altogether make up their long legs. 

There is no specific bone count since it varies between species, but it’s safe to say that there are a minimum of twenty-one bones in their legs. Although, a little owl or a baby owl would of course have lesser bones that are still developing.

Again, depending on the species, some legs are covered in feathers, and some are bare. This is based on their primary habitat and nature. Most species have their legs patched with plumage, but species like the Barn Owl have theirs exposed as well.

The Purpose Behind Their Shocking Length

Of course, just like why an owl hoots, an owl has long legs for a reason—and in this case, many reasons!

Let’s tackle them one by one.

Standing On Their Toes

Owl with a heart-shaped face

Earlier we talked about the largest bone on a body of a bird called tibiotarsus. It’s just right above their ankles and it makes up the upper half of their leg. 

On the other hand, the tarsometatarsus is their ankle which pretty much looks like a backward-facing joint on the mid part of their legs.

Now, if you think their legs are already long, it may shock you to find out that we only see the lower two-thirds of its entirety!

This leg structure allows them to stand on their toes for long periods of time without getting bruised or losing balance. 

Knowing how important it is for their survival and day-to-day activities, these long legs really do them a favor. Without it, they won’t be able to observe their surroundings or stand still while hunting prey.

Running And Walking Forward And Backwards

If you’ve never seen an owl run, don’t feel so bad.

Even though most of them are capable of running, they often prefer not to. They cant really run so well or reach certain speeds, running is a very uncommon act for them.

However, the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) strikes through these facts by becoming one of the fastest running owls ever. They aren't just known for reacting a burrow wherever they go but are also known for chasing prey on the ground instead of just flying over them.

And yes, you read that right, owls can walk BACKWARDS.

Since the anatomy of their legs consists of two forward-facing talons and one that’s facing backward, walking in the opposite direction isn’t such a hassle for them. 

The structure of their bones allows them to easily balance their bodies and walk in multiple directions without struggle.

Flying And Soaring High

You may be thinking that an owl with long legs would find flying a hassle.

But that’s not really the case here.

Slender owl legs actually provide them the benefit of a thoroughly balanced flight.

This is due to the large muscles located on the upper part of their legs. Each muscle is tightly comparted to their body allowing for centralized weight distribution.

The anatomy of their legs and feet are light and bony which does not hinder their balance and sense of direction but actually allows them to master the art of flight.

Protection Against All Threats

One of the most obvious facts would be that an owl has long legs.

When we talk about threats to an owl’s survival, we don’t just mean bigger birds or animals that may devour them at any moment.

It is important to keep in mind that climate change also greatly impacts their lifespan. 

There are species that live in habitats that are extremely cold just like the Snowy Owl and the Great Gray owl. And there are also ones that reside in areas that are terribly hot just like the Burrowing Owl.

Could you imagine how baby owls sleep in such extreme climates?

Well, they manage to because of their leg and feet structure. As mentioned earlier, they’ve got very light and bony legs; this allows for protection. Meaning to say they can still continue their day-to-day activities by keeping their feet and toes cold in the hot weather.

In cold climates, they have protection against frostbite from the dense feathers that surround their long legs. 

So these baby owl legs don’t really suffer from climate change because of their body structure, thankfully :>

Take it from the Great Gray owl, their insulation over the freezing weather is exceptional! They are thickly feathered creatures, each feather is thick enough to cover up their body shape.

Foraging, Attacking, And Killing

Barn owl in flight before attack

All those owl leg images may be funny and adorable, but when it comes to their survival, owls have absolutely no mercy.

These birds are savage predators who make use of their sharp vision, exceptional hearing, and strong anatomy that allows them to fly silently and grasp things tightly with their talons. No wonder they’re known for being smart.

But that’s not all. These legs act as a secret weapon to owls when they hunt for prey. From here, they exert their strengths and pass them onto their talons which are their primary hunting tool. 

And by “strength” we don’t just mean something that can hold on tightly, we mean up to THIRTY pounds of pressure. Talk about a bird of prey!

Even though their legs are light, they still allow for a traveling path for force. The large leg muscles propel their talons and determine the appropriate grip strength for certain situations.

The length of their legs also allows them to reach certain areas and elevations where the prey may hide or seek refuge in. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the correct term to use when referring to an owl’s legs?

While most people prefer to just call them owl legs, they can also be identified with the term “tarsus”. This is based on the biggest bone of their body located on their leg scientifically called a “tibiotarsus”.

How long are the owl’s legs?

It depends on their species. Their long legs could easily range from 20-30 centimeters long, regardless of the owl species.

Watch this to learn more about the mystery of Owl legs:

How long are the Great Horned Owl’s legs?

The Great Horned Owl of North America is one of the heaviest owls to exist, and it's safe to assume that all of their weight comes from their long legs. The length of their two tarsi (the tibiotarsus and tarsometatarsus) ranges from 54 millimeters up to 80 millimeters. When you add this up to their average foot span, it can possibly sum up to 200 millimeters. 

What owl has the longest legs?

There really hasn’t been any official statement about which owl has the longest legs of them all. However, many believe that it is the Eurasian Eagle-Owl or more known as the Bubo bubo because it is one of the tallest owls in the world.

What else is so interesting about an Owl’s nature?

Without question, their head-bobbing. If you’ve never seen an owl do this cute little act, then you should really soon! Owls don’t just bob their heads just for nothing, doing so allows them to have a wider perspective by increasing their depth perception. 

The Bottom Line

These majestic birds who are very wise and observant are also ferocious and savage predators.

It’s great to know that each part of an owl’s anatomy, even their long owl legs, serves many purposes that don’t just make them more interesting but also help them perform their everyday tasks.

Now that you’ve seen how long their legs could look, it’s almost impossible to look or think of them the same again. Surely it has changed your perspective of what an owl symbolizes to you. 

We hope this article helped you learn more about owls and their majestic nature, now it’s time to spot one on your next birding adventure!

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