Superb Owl: How an internet typo took flight and became a fine-feathered celebration

It's a meme, pop culture phenomenon and an earnest way to appreciate the nocturnal hunters on football Sunday

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published February 12, 2023 11:00AM (EST)

Superb Owl (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Superb Owl (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It's wordplay that has legs. Surprisingly long, slender legs with sharp, killing claws on the ends. It's Superb Owl, a typo of Super Bowl (running the B from "Bowl" onto "Super") — and the phrase has taken on a life of its own, rising from the depths of an internet joke to become a popular, actually lauded day.

Where did Superb Owl come from? How did the phrase gain prominence, where does it appear in pop culture, and if football isn't your thing, or even if it is, what are some ways to celebrate our feathered friends on Sunday? Salon digs our talons into the history of the resplendent bird and its day.  

The meme

It's hard for our children to believe, but there was actually life before the internet, and someone must have made the joke there, in the real world. But as far as online goes, the phrase Superb Owl can be traced back to at least 2008 when a user by the name of @shawnw tweeted, "Superb Owl party tonight!" The post only received three likes and two retweets. It was 2008, after all. 

Three years later, in 2011, the subreddit /r/Superbowl was started with the rules: "(1) Image posts must contain an owl (2) Text posts must be about owls." It currently has over 400,000 members and is in the top 1% of reddit communities. Recent posts include a carving a user did of an owl out of white pine wood, and a closeup of a Barred Owl with the caption "1 of 6 Superbowls I saw last night."

The subreddit is active all year along, not just when early February rolls around and people start making dips. 

"The Colbert Report"

In 2014, Stephen Colbert brought the phrase to late night TV on "The Colbert Report" when he utilized it heavily to circumvent saying "Super Bowl," after receiving a letter from the network, which he read on air, about the strict protections taken around the trademarked phrase. Most media tend to use the phrase "the Big Game" to circumvent the restrictions, but Colbert of course had loftier plans.

"I believe we can cover the story like nobody else simply by moving one consonant in the title," Colbert said before a video montage rolled of the comedian with football pads over his suit and tie, an owl swooping majestically in the background and hooting. In the bit, Colbert also referred to "the big game" as "tight pants man clash" and "America's pastime." 

Superb Owl "In the Shadows"

In 2020, in its second season, the superb show "What We Do in the Shadows" featured a Superb Owl episode. Titled "Brain Scramblies," the episode centered on the vampire roommates' confusion about the modern human world. Invited by neighbor Sean to their first-ever Superb Owl party, they're all disappointed when it turns out to be a football party and, like the great pumpkin, the mighty bird himself never shows. 


The "What We Do in the Shadows" vampires may have been drawn to the big bird because of its nocturnal and Gothic associations, but their love underscores an important aspect of the Superb Owl: owls are cool. 

As NPR writes, "For birding enthusiasts . . . Superb Owl Sunday is a sacred day, a chance to appreciate the majestic creature by posting owl pics on social media en masse." That's the main way Superb Owl has come to be celebrated, the flood of owl images online. 

Nature groups and others have seized the day as an opportunity to spread awareness. "Soon," National Geographic tweeted in 2019 with a slo-mo video of an owl headed toward the camera with reaching talons and narrowed eyes.

The Sierra Club and various national parks have all gotten in on the social media fun. As far as offline enjoyment, is anyone actually hosting Superb Owl parties (and how can I score an invite)? Yes, actually. The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey held a pre-Sunday fête this year with "owl themed games and crafts, an owl presentation with live owl ambassadors, and a moonlit walk." That's the best way to celebrate, according to a birder interviewed by NPR, who said, "Just take a walk in nature, especially at dawn and dusk."

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Yes, it's silly wordplay that may have started as a spelling mistake, but Superb Owl has grown to be chance to learn about and appreciate the more than 200 species of these weird and wonderful loner night birds, some of whom are threatened by habitat loss, climate chaos and changes in land use. In 2019, Superb Owl was even its own category on "Jeopardy!"

As Sporting News writes, "In reality, you're either here because you made a mistake or because you legitimately want to look at owl pictures." Either way, it's a hoot.

By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

MORE FROM Alison Stine

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Birders Birds Deep Dive Football Memes Sports Super Bowl Superb Owl What We Do In The Shadows