Fact Check

Baby Owls Sleep Face Down Because Their Heads Are Too Heavy?

Adult owls, on the other hand, often sleep sitting upright.

Published March 12, 2024

Updated March 14, 2024
 (Screengrab/Instagram)
Image Via Screengrab/Instagram
Claim:
Owl chicks sleep face down because their heads are too heavy.
Context

Some owl chicks in captivity have been observed sleeping face down, likely due to their living conditions or tiredness (as babies tend to be). Owl chicks hatch with neck strength capable of cracking their eggshell and the ability to lift their heads for feeding, so it's unlikely they couldn't hold their heads upright while sleeping.

Over the years, Snopes has looked into owl kinds of rumors involving the nocturnal birds of prey. From a questionable red owl with blue eyes and the supposed blue owl species to whether this rainbow owl was genuine or these two cute owlets were observed sitting in a tree together, we've had a hoot debunking online rumors.

Another internet favorite is the claim that baby owls sleep face down because their heads are too heavy, which was shared in a video on Reddit in 2021: 

Baby owls sleep face down because their heads are too heavy.
byu/MousseSuspicious930 inDamnthatsinteresting

Dozens of other iterations of the claim above have appeared online in different channels — hereherehere and here, for example. Take the photo shared to Instagram below, which claims to show a sleepy, splooting owl face down on the ground: 

 

Snopes spoke with Denver Holt, researcher and founder of the Montana-based nonprofit Owl Research Institute, who said that while this behavior has been observed in owl chicks living in captivity, it is not common. We have rated this claim as a "Mixture."

"[Owl chicks] are certainly very capable of holding their heads up, but like every other species, as babies, they most likely get tired and sleep a lot," Holt said in an email. 

Some owl chicks in captivity, like those featured in the social media posts above, will not exhibit their typical natural behavior. The first image, for example, showed a snowy owl, a species rarely seen lying completely flat with its legs outstretched "unless they are staying still because they sense a threat, it's sometimes a fear response," Holt said.

"In captivity, owls may not need to conserve body heat, like they normally do in the wild, so they may choose to lay flat, but normally they crouch with their legs up under them or lay on top of or under a sibling," he added. 

Owl chicks emerge from their eggs with well-developed neck muscles that, in theory, allow them to keep their heads upright. For example, owl chicks have enough muscle to pound upward and backward with their egg tooth, located on the top of their bill, to hatch. Owl chicks also can hold up their heads for feeding immediately after hatching.

"[Owl chicks] generally lay with their head on the ground or in the nest, mostly with their chin up. However, most of the time, they are laying on each other or other things in the nest, so their heads are propped up," Holt said. "While [baby owls] have been seen sleeping face down, it's more typical to see them resting their heads on their chin flat on the ground."

Generally, owl chicks that sleep with their heads down will do so until they get ready to leave the nest, at which point they start sleeping upright.

 

Katie Gill Warner, center director at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, agreed with Holt, writing to Snopes in an email: 

Baby owls when they are young lay down more often than adults. Not due to their head being to large or heavy, but they just flop down or over appearing that they are face down/head down. Owls are not the only baby raptors that sleep with their heads down, hawks do also as well as eagles, etc. They are exhausted because their little bodies are busy growing bones and feathers. This requires a lot of energy. They just pass out. In a nest, babies typically hunker down or appear laying down while their parents stay alert, look for predators, bring food, etc.

Adult owls typically sleep perched on branches with their legs tucked underneath, using their back toe, the hallux, to hold onto the branch. Holt said the hallux does not open or let go until the bird bends its leg. 

Sources

A Baby Owl Sleeping Face Down Is Unbelievable. 15 July 2021, https://www.birdadvisors.com/a-baby-owl-sleeping-face-down-is-unbelievable/.

Evon, Dan. "Is This Red Owl With Blue Eyes Real?" Snopes, 2 Nov. 2015, https://www.snopes.com//fact-check/red-owl-photo-fake/.

Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/artneversleeps/p/Cpn5TSTukgH/?img_index=1. Accessed 8 Mar. 2024.

Liles, Jordan. "Blue Owls Aren't Real, Despite Pictures Shared Online." Snopes, 2 Dec. 2022, https://www.snopes.com//fact-check/are-blue-owls-real/.

Mikkelson, David. "FACT CHECK: Is This a Photograph of a Rainbow Owl?" Snopes, 26 Mar. 2012, https://www.snopes.com//fact-check/rainbow-owl/.

---. "Two Cute Owlets." Snopes, 21 Dec. 2014, https://www.snopes.com//fact-check/stuffed-owlets/.

Netizens Surprised to Learn Baby Owls Sleep Face down as Their Heads Are Too Heavy. 23 June 2020, https://www.timesnownews.com/the-buzz/article/netizens-surprised-to-learn-baby-owls-sleep-face-down-as-their-heads-are-too-heavy/610436.

"Owl Research Institute." Owlresearchinstitute, https://www.owlresearchinstitute.org. Accessed 8 Mar. 2024.

"People Are Just Learning That Some Owls Sleep With Their Faces Down And Here Are 26 Pics." Bored Panda, 24 June 2020, https://www.boredpanda.com/sleeping-owls-face-down/.

"Why Baby Owls Actually Sleep like This." Drool by Dr. Chris Brown, https://www.drool.pet/blogs/the-weird/why-baby-owls-actually-sleep-like-this. Accessed 8 Mar. 2024.

Updates

UPDATE [March 14, 2024]: Added comment from Katie Warner, center director at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey.

Madison Dapcevich is a freelance contributor for Snopes.

Article Tags