In Western culture, owls are synonymous with wisdom and knowledge. You notice it in childhood stories like "Winnie the Pooh" and college mascots like the Temple Owls. Cartoon owls wearing caps and gowns appear on graduation cards, and owls in reading spectacles are regularly spotted on signs for libraries and bookstores. In Greek and Roman mythology, owls were associated with education, intellect and magic, probably because of their wide eyes, solemn expression and ability to see through darkness [sources: Cornell, Lewis].
But are owls actually wise? As it turns out, not so much. Their nocturnal habits and swift, silent flight make them seem mysterious, and they are certainly well-adapted for hunting small creatures in low light, but when it comes to measurable intelligence, owls have very small brains proportionate to their body size, and they are less trainable than crows, hawks, parrots or pigeons. In fact, most owls can't be trained to do simple tasks [sources: Mascoli, Santillano].
Interestingly, in India, an owl is considered dumb and empty-headed, due to its tendency to sit and stare blankly into space. In fact, the Hindi word for owl, which is oolu, is also used as a gently derogatory term meaning "dolt" or "fool" [sources: Foster, Santillano]. Someone hanging around without doing anything useful might be said to be sitting around "like an owl."