The Eye of the Beh-owl-der: Are Convorees Really “Space Owls”?

Star Wars: Rebels has introduced us to an entire menagerie of new creatures in the galaxy far, far away. There are the cute (lothcats), the majestic (purrgils), and the just plain comedic (puffer pigs), but perhaps no creature has elicited more fan speculation than that of the convor (okay, fine, lothwolves excluded).

The convor on Sabine’s shoulder pad

The convorees (plural of convor) first appeared in a series of The Clone Wars episodes, when Ahsoka is kidnapped by Trandoshan hunters and taken to Wasskah. However, their most memorable appearance is on the planet Atollon, where the Ghost crew sets up base at the end of Star Wars: Rebels season 2. After this, the convor is incorporated into Sabine’s new armor designs.

Until recently, I had never bothered to look up the convor’s true name, resorting instead to referring to them as “space owls.” The comparison is an easy one to make, and I know I wasn’t the only one to make it. Superficially, these creatures look and behave similarly to our expectations of the owls of our own planet. However, can we truly classify them as owls? There are dozens of perspectives we could take to attempt to answer this question, but I’d like to focus my analysis from a single aspect: that of the convor’s eyes.

Possibly the most notable behaviors of owls are that they are nocturnal, that is, they are most active when it is dark out. (As with all generalizations, this turns out to not be entirely true as there are a handful of owl species that are active during the day.) Since owls are birds of prey, they hunt and catch live prey for food and thus rely on a number of unique adaptations in order to do this in the dark. Specially adapted eyes resulting in exceptionally strong vision is the most important of those adaptations.

A Great-horned Owl

In order to help them see in the dark, owls’ eyes are big, plain and simple. Bigger eyes means more light can enter the eye and when it’s dark out, owls have to take in as much light as possible, from the moon, stars, or human-created sources. Take the Great-horned Owl, for example: the quintessential owl, the most common owl in North America, and quite possibly the most likely species to come to your mind when asked to picture an owl. If a human adult had eyeballs the same size proportionate to their skulls as a Great-horned Owl does, each of our eyeballs would be as large as an orange!

Having those oversized eyeballs doesn’t come without a catch, however. With so much of their skull space being occupied by eyeball, owls don’t have room in their skulls for something that we humans have the space for: extra muscles! Our eyeballs have muscles behind them that allow us to move our eyes to look up to the sky or down to the ground or to roll up and around when our parents make embarrassing comments in public; owls don’t have that luxury. An owl’s eyes are fixed in it’s skull, always pointing in one, singular direction.

An owl can rotate its head 270-degrees! Source.

But that tradeoff comes with another tradeoff! Since owls can’t move their eyes around in their skulls to look at the world around them, they can rotate a different part of their body instead – their neck. Now, it is a myth that owls can rotate their heads all the way around, but the 270-degrees they can rotate is nothing to sneeze at! Owls can move their heads three quarters of the way around, in both directions, allowing them much greater range of motion than we humans. This is enabled by the fact that they have 14 vertebrae in their necks, compared to our mere seven.

Another feature of owl eyes that allows them the ability to hunt at night is a difference in the number of rods and cones in their eyes. Do you remember learning about rods and cones in your middle school science classes? To greatly oversimplify, rods are what allow us to see movement, while cones allow us to see color. Owls have a much greater proportion of rods to cones in their eyes than we do. If you think about it, the ability to see movement is much more important for hunting at night than the ability to see color. Various studies have come to differing conclusions about how many colors owls can actually differentiate, but the answer is most likely “not many.”

It’s not just the size of the eyeballs, or the rods and cones inside, that have equipped owls to be such proficient nighttime hunters, though. The placement of the eyes on the skull is also an important adaptation. Both of an owl’s eyes are forward facing, situated in the front of the skull. Owl beaks are all downward facing, which results in minimal obstruction of an owl’s vision by its beak. The eyes facing forward allows owls to use binocular vision, an adaptation they share with humans, that allows for increased accuracy in identifying where an object is spatially located. Pinpointing an object’s location to further accuracy can be achieved by bobbing the head, a behavior commonly observed in hunting owls.

Convor reference image

As I mentioned, vision and the eyes are just one single aspect of the owl’s rich and expansive natural history. But just for argument’s sake, let’s now return to the so called “Space Owls” and see if, from this particular lens (ha), the moniker is accurate.

  • Eye Size: Are the convor’s eyes noticeably large in proportion to its skull? I would argue….no. Their eyes do not seem to be particularly large, especially when compared to the other feathered fauna of our hearts, the porgs. We see porgs active both at day and at night in The Last Jedi (although their most famous nighttime scene may have been less a natural behavior and more self defense due to the sudden appearance of a wookiee predator on their island), and based on the size of their eyes, it appears the porgs are equipped to survive a nocturnal lifestyle. But I digress.
  • Neck Rotation: Unfortunately, we have never seen a convor rotate their head, so we can neither confirm nor deny their ability to do so to the same degree as an owl.
  • Cones and Rods: Believe it or not, none of the canon (or legends material for that matter) has addressed the number of cones and rods in a convor’s eyes. I’m not holding my breath for this to come up in a conversation between our Jedi heroes anytime soon, either.
  • Forward-facing Eyes: Convor’s do indeed have forward-facing eyes!

So with one out of four features confirmed, can we conclusively call convorees “space owls” in relation to their eyes? Probably not. But then again, this is a totally arbitrary and completely unscientific analysis of a space creature so…I will probably still keep calling them “space owls.”

(For further study, here is a collection I found of every convor appearance to date.)

Other sources cited: Owls of the World, second edition, by Heimo Mikkola. 2014, Firefly Books, Ltd.