Extra, Extra, Read OWL About It
Due to their unique disc-shaped faces, large eyes, and elegant colorations, owls are arguably one of the most widely recognized groups of birds in the world. There are about 200 species of owl dispersed among every continent around the globe, except for Antarctica, and occupy many different types of habitats, from urban/suburban areas to dense forests. Owls are birds of prey, or raptors (along with hawks, eagles, falcons, and a few others), meaning they capture and kill smaller vertebrates, unlike many songbirds that eat insects (invertebrates).
Owls have a wide array of adaptations which make them incredible predators. They have massive eyes that help them to see more effectively under low light conditions, which is important since many owl species are nocturnal hunters. These huge eyes; however, do not have the same rolling ability that ours do, meaning they cannot look side-to-side. Owls also don’t have as wide of a peripheral vision as humans, only about 110 degrees to a humans 180 degrees. To make up for these facts, they are able to rotate their necks about 270 degrees around so that they can see all around their body.
In order to effectively sneak up on their prey, owls have specialized primary feathers that are finely serrated in order to break up turbulence. Once the muffled sound passes through the primaries, the remaining sound waves are absorbed by the fluffy down feathers located within the rest of the wing as well as the legs. This silent flight is crucial for the survival of the bird, because in order to grow and stay healthy they must be able to catch prey quickly and quietly.
Before they actually go hunting, they must locate exactly where their next meal is located. Most species are able to do this with their anomalous disc-shaped faces, which take in and funnel sound waves to the birds’ ears. In many species, these ears are asymmetrical (one lays higher up on the side of the head than the other), giving the owls an ability to triangulate the direction of sounds not only left or right, but also up or down. Owls are so adept at hunting by ear, studies have shown that a barn owl is still able to hunt while blindfolded, but cannot capture prey if one of their ears is plugged.
Once they locate and silently fly to their prey, they rely on their strong talons to grab hold of the animal until it can no longer breathe and then finally swallow their prey whole. Since their bodies cannot digest every part of their prey, those parts that cannot pass through to their stomach (i.e. bones, fur, teeth and feathers) are regurgitated in the form of a compact pellet.
Owls are an excellent species to have around your house as they act as free pest control, hunting any mice that may be hanging around. Unfortunately, due to the increased use of pesticides (i.e. rat poison), our owl populations are suffering. Owls will unknowingly hunt mice and rats that have recently ingested these poisons, leading to the bird itself becoming poisoned. So, if you happen to have mice near your house, the best thing to do is look up environmentally friendly methods of pest control, or install a barn owl house nearby to encourage these free exterminators to move in!
Author: Sammy Baker
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