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There is a long-running tradition of using owls as a symbol of knowledge. This might be because their eyes resemble Nerd Glasses, or because they are silent and mysterious. Most likely, though, it's because of their importance in various ancient cultures, especially the Greeks, where the owl was the bird of Athena, the goddess of, among other things, wisdom; who knows where they got it from?
In any event, owls are usually depicted as wise and honorable and serve as Mentors, teachers, and advisors. Be aware, though, that they tend to share traits with the Absent-Minded Professor and the TV Genius, so take their advice with a grain of salt. There is also a tendency for owls to act as narrators/storytellers.
Generally speaking, in real life, owls aren't the smartest of birds (that goes to the corvids, such as crows and magpies). Solo predators tend not to be the smartest creatures (although smarter than herbivores; it takes even fewer brains to sneak up on a leaf), as cunning is better than raw brainpower when it comes to getting hold of prey. However, Barn owls seem to be moderately intelligent and even emotional, as evidenced by owl trainer Gary Gero and Wesley.
- The owl from the classic '70s animated Tootsie Pop commercial, as a subversion. Or possibly not, since he's the only one in those commercials ever willing to just say, "I don't know."
- He's also the only one to suggest the application of the scientific method to the question. And then use that suggestion to get free candy.
- In a live action 1970s Esso commercial for their auto service that has a takeoff of The Tortoise and the Hare, the tortoise makes a pit stop with an owl as his "mechanic."
- In Negima Second Season, Yue (The Smart Girl) transforms into an owl as her suka/dud form.
- Ash's Noctowl in Pokémon was said to be very intelligent in the episode in which he captured it, but it wasn't really mentioned later.
- The owl of the Forest of Death in Wolf's Rain falls between straight and subversion. The wolves are creeped out by it because it doesn't have a scent (maybe it's a ghost), and its utterances don't seem to make sense. On the other hand, it turns out that they not only do make sense, but eventually lead the wolves and Cheza out of the forest to (temporary) safety.
- Old Man Owl from the Sonic the Hedgehog anime movie is a fairly slick aversion; maybe he was at one point, but emphasis on the fact that he's known as Old Man Owl. The guy's senile as a head of Wensleydale and his vision is so bad even those cokebottles he wears don't do him any good.
- In Yaiba on their way to the Seven Orbs, Yaiba and the others met a huge, wise-looking owl and asked him for directions. He wanted to be paid. They eventually resorts to bind him and taking him with them.
- In many Disney comics, a judge that both Donald and Mickey have dealt with is an owl (not certain if it is meant to be the same person, or if being a judge is just a thing that comes naturally to anthropomorphic owls) - which is obviously meant to be symbolic, as it is rare that the Funny Animals in the comics are easily identifiable as anything but generic "birdpeople" or "dognoses".
- Otero and Liebber in Blacksad
- Harvey Who, an extremely minor character from Archie Comics' Sonic the Hedgehog series is this as a member of the Kingdom of Acorn's Secret Service. However, King Max portrayed him as a Cassandra Truth sayer, ignoring his advice and leading to the downfall of his kingdom. He sees Max's son, Elias, as a worthy holder of the crown and is working to help him get it back.
- Owls in the Harry Potter Verse seem to be unusually intelligent, at times seeming to almost be able to understand humans, and have the uncanny ability to find anyone in the world, as long as they have something addressed to that person. (Word of God says that wizards in hiding can enchant themselves to be untraceable by owls, though.)
- Subverted in the Doctor Who New Adventures novel Sanctuary, by David A. McIntee:
'[The Doctor] is very much like the owl, I think,' said Guy, half to himself.
'Wise, you mean?' Benny had heard several people comment on such a likeness. Perhaps it was his eyebrows and keen gaze.
'What has wisdom to do with owls? He is comfortable in the darkness, as they are, and I think he is equally as adept at hunting down prey in cold blood.'
- Merlin's owl Archemedes in The Once and Future King.
- Owl in Winnie the Pooh stories, where he's an outright Know-Nothing Know-It-All.
- The Silver Chair: The Parliament of the Owls
- The Hank the Cowdog series has Madame Moonshine, the witchy little owl. She often provides magical assistance to Hank when it suits her, although she does have some odd mannerisms, like referring to him as "Hank the Rabbit."
- Subverted harshly in the James Thurber fable The Owl Who Was God.
- Subverted in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, which features a pair of minor characters called the Wise Donkey and the Foolish Owl, who are just that.
- In the Belgariad, the philosophical and wise god Aldur has the owl as his totem. The sorceresses he taught, Poledra and Polgara, also favour that shape when they need to transform.
- X the Owl from The Neighbourhood of Make-Believe.
- Charlie Owl from New Zoo Revue wore a mortarboard, implying wisdom.
- Hoots the Owl from Sesame Street, who possessed the skills of saxophone playing and singing the blues.
- Circuit, from Power Rangers Time Force.
- Howland Owl from Pogo is actually a parody/subversion of the trope, as his idea of intelligence is using big words and spouting Little-Known Facts.
- Dungeons and Dragons links Owls to wisdom too. The wisdom boosting spell in 3rd ed. and later is called "Owl's Wisdom".
- In Planescape, the Beast Lord of owls is one of oldest beings on his plane and is a part-time sage of godlike wisdom and knowledge. Noctral are Lawful Good supra-genius barn owls with 20' wingspan collecting (and dispensing to anyone capable of hearing) knowledge.
- Giant owls, along with giant eagles a la JRR Tolkien, are among the few "giant animal"-type monsters to have been sentient in all incarnations of AD&D. Basic/Expert/etc D&D had the hsiao, a Lawful race of giant owls with clerical (= Wisdom-based) spellcasting powers.
- A Dragon article on personality types for Gamma World mutant animals suggested owl-people weren't any smarter than anyone else, but acted as if they were.
- That annoying owl (Kaepora Gaebora) in The Legend of Zelda games Ocarina of Time and Links Awakening.
- Although the wisdom part may be justified here as the stones scattered around Hyrule in Ocarina of Time seem to suggest that he was once one of the Sages, and ended up reincarnated.
- In King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder, Cedric the Owl was intended to help guide the player through the game and offer insightful input. In practice he just hung around annoying you, left when anything dangerous might happen, made inane observations ("Look, Graham! A poisonous snake!") and when he said something that actually could have been a useful warning, it was always too late to avert the catastrophe. The key here is he was designed to give information; he just sucked at it.
- The owl in My World My Way who gives advice and a few spells to the heroine.
- The creatively-named Owl from Nights: Journey of Dreams serves as the game's Exposition Fairy.
- Hoothoot and its evolution Noctowl from Pokémon, while not exactly Psychic-type, can still learn a lot of good Psychic-type moves. The Pokedex also states that they're very intelligent - Hoothoot's Platinum entry states that "Some countries consider it to be a wise friend, versed in the world's ways," while Noctowl's Silver entry states that "When it needs to think, it rotates its head 180 degrees to sharpen its intellectual power."
- The owls found all over the place in ZanZarah serve as Mr. Exposition.
- Blathers, the curator of the Museum in the Animal Crossing games. At the least, he's knowledgeable in most, if not all of the things you donate.
- In El Goonish Shive owls are related to the knowledge, albeit in a different way. "READ, or the owl will eat you".
- Hark! A Vagrant knows what makes owls wise.
- The Perry Bible Fellowship reminds us: the hardest part is to find that owl.
- According to Jason Love's Snapshots, some owls more than the rest.
- Political satire comic I Drew This pointed out the falsehood of this on one occasion:
Owls have a reputation for being wise. But in fact, they're no smarter than they need to be. Larry King looks like an owl. But recently he asked the dumbest question anyone has ever asked on TV: "How can you out-and-out deny creationism, since if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?"
- Owl from Winnie the Pooh is a subversion, as some of his advice makes no sense.
- Archimedes from The Sword in the Stone.
- Subverted with Friend Owl in Disney's Bambi, who initially appears to be wise but turns out to be a Know-Nothing Know-It-All.
- How? Because he described sexuality in third-grader terms?
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Wan Shi Tong, the knowledge spirit who runs the greatest library in the world, is a giant barn owl. If you get him mad, though, he quickly gets into Owl Be Damned territory...
- His name is a Bilingual Bonus: 万知堂 (wànzhītáng) means "He who knows ten thousand things."
- The Secret of NIMH: The Great Owl. As in the novel, he is both creepy and wise.
- There was Big Mama, an owl, in The Fox and the Hound, who functions as a mentor figure to Tod.
- In the Christmas Special Christopher The Christmas Tree, a young owl runs away from home because he's tired of being taunted for not being as smart as the rest of his family (he can't fly or even talk). His smarter brothers are even shown wearing mortarboards, playing into this trope.
- Good-guy leader Leoric from Visionaries had a magic staff with the power of Wisdom, manifesting as a talking owl whose advice usually took a scene change to figure out.
- Professor Owl in the Adventures in Music Duology.
- One of the teachers on Timmy Time is Osbourne, a kindly and patient owl. His son also attends, and clearly looks up to his father, emulating him whenever possible.
- The owl Zocrates from The Bluffers is not only named after an ancient Greek philosopher, he is even dressed like a stereotypical ancient Greek, complete with laurel wreath on his head.
- Owl from The Animals of Farthing Wood.
- The family of owls from the Looney Tunes short "I Love To Singa" is a family of classical musicians-except for the youngest, who wants to be a jazz singer..
- Olivia Owl in Birdz is the nerdy type.
- Owlowiscious in My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic becomes the pet of Twilight Sparkle, and for a pet he's extremely competent, helping Twilight out at night when Spike is asleep. Enough so for Spike (a fully sentient dragonling who has been with Twilight for years) feels his position as "number 1 assistant" threatened by the owl.
- Owls, of course, are the emblem of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom. They were also apparently very common in Athens; in several languages, "Carry owls to Athens" means doing something pointless.
- Though the last part may be referring to Athenian coins stamped with an owl motif (Athena being, of course, the city's patron goddess) rather than actual birds.
- The original trope name ("Wise Old Owl") comes from a nursery rhyme:
"A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?"
- This was later appropriated by the U.S. Army to encourage soldiers to keep their mouths shut (loose lips sink ships).
- It was also written on the walls of the Owl Bar in Baltimore as a code for ordering alcohol during Prohibition - when booze was available, an owl lamp above the bar would blink.
- The Dutch children's show De Fabeltjeskrant -- also known as I fablernas värld ("In the world of fables") in Swedish -- used an owl called Meneer de Uil (Mr Owl, originally enough) as a narrator.
- Woodsy Owl, the anti-pollution mascot.
- OWL magazine, published in Canada, is a digest meant to get kids interested in learning. The name and mascot are owls, obviously playing to the owl's association with knowledge.
- Do a Google search for "smart owl" or some variation thereof and you will find a plethora of pictures of owls in mortarboards.
- "Oh, Old Master Owwwww-wul!"
- Mortasheen gives us the Bemzuul, which is essentially an owl with oversized, creepy-looking eyes. According to its description, while not wise per se, "the small but durable Bemzuul can focus its vision on small subjects up to a mile away and telepathically transmit its perspective to any individual who knows its unique set of psychic 'keywords.' It can even be commanded to recall, erase or edit specific segments of visual information from its photographic memory, or "broadcast" stored visions to all sentient beings within a certain area." Bonus points for having a name derived from B.E.M., the acronym for "Bug Eyed Monster."
- The owl voiced by Ellen DeGeneres in the film Doctor Dolittle starring Eddie Murphy.
- The owl is the unofficial mascot of the high IQ organization Mensa.
- Wise low-cal potato chips feature a stylized owl's head on their bags.