The schematic eye ofStrix aluco, a nocturnal owl species, is described. A comparative and ecological context is used to examine the relationships between optical parameters of the eye and its light gathering and resolving powers. It is concluded that the essentially ‘nocturnal’ feature of the owl eye does not lie in either its light gathering power or the sensitivity of individual rod receptors. Differences in visual performance at low light levels between the owl and the diurnal pigeon appear to be attributable to differences in the retinal neural integration mechanisms of the two species. However, it is hypothesised that the neural mechanisms which mediate the extraction of spatial information from the retinal image throughout the nocturnal luminance range, can function in the owl eye only because of its absolutely large sized retinal image. Thus the primarily nocturnal feature of the owl eye is its absolutely large posterior nodal distance, retinal image brightness is maximised only as a secondary feature.