Fascinating Facts About Owls

Learn About the Ever-Interesting Owl

Nov 9, 2017
Great Horned Owlet Eating Baltimore Oriole
Anne Marie Warren

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Henry David Thoreau once observed, “I rejoice that there are owls,”—and we have to agree. Read on to learn all about a fascinating and formidable bird of prey: the owl!

The Alluring Owl

Most people become attracted to owls at an early age, and they are often the first bird recognized by young children. Any grandparent can recall being delighted by the first “hoo, hoo” of a grandchild.

Our interest in owls goes back thousands of years to caves in France—then Arctic tundra—where an Ice Age artist drew a snowy owl on a cave wall. Owls can also be found on Greek coins and Roman vases, and the oldest owl picture in the United States was painted by native artists 1,000 years ago.

Canadians seem to have a particular affinity for owls—the Provincial Bird of Alberta is the great horned owl, while the Provincial Bird of Manitoba is the great gray owl.

Ever heard the call of a great horned owl? Click here for the bird sound!

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Photo: Great Horned Owl

Fascinating Facts About Owls

Owls are highly evolved predators. Here are some of their most incredible features:

Vision

  • Some owl species’ eyes are as large as human eyes, despite their heads being just a fraction of the size of ours. 
  • Owl eyes are not perfectly spherical; instead, they are shaped more like a rounded tube. This gives them enhanced vision, but also leaves them incapable of moving their eyes. To compensate, the owl has a very flexible neck, and can turn its head 270 degrees left or right and 90 degrees up!
  • While an owl’s vision is 2 to 3 times better than a human’s, a cat can see twice as well as an owl at night!
  • Owls can admit 2.7 times more light than our eyes.
  • Owls can focus their eyes 10 times faster than we can, which allows them to make quick flight adjustments to avoid collisions with trees or to catch small prey.
  • To protect their eyes while hunting, owls have something called a nictitating membrane or “third eyelid”—a transparent membrane that can be drawn over the eye, but still seen through.

Barn owl
Photo: Barn Owl

Hearing and Hunting

  • Owls have a very well-developed sense of hearing. They have asymmetrical ear openings, which permit sounds to be perceived in only a fraction of a second—as little as 3/100,000ths of a second. This incredible ability allows them to hear mice under the snow in winter.
  • Large feathered facial discs gather and concentrate sound waves like parabolic antennas.
  • Owls have a large wing surface relative to body weight, which allows them to glide noiselessly. A comb-like fringe on the front and trailing edges of their wing feathers and a downy layer of fibers both work to muffle noise effectively. Scientists are using this knowledge to apply owl physiology to wind turbines, fans, cars, and eventually planes.
  • Owls hunt at night and prefer to prey on nocturnal animals such as mice, rabbits, voles, and skunks. They also hunt grouse and pheasants.

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Photo: Snowy Owl

Nesting

  • The great-horned owl male hoots to his mate on the nest and she returns the hoot in what is called “duetting.”
  • Female owls are larger and 40% heavier than male owls; this allows for the production of eggs and the generation of heat energy to incubate eggs.
  • Many owls nest in February and March in northern latitudes. Some use old nests of hawks and crows, while others nest in hollow trees or bird houses. The male often brings prey for the female as she cannot leave the eggs on a cold, snowy night.
  • In areas where there are few or no trees, owls may nest on mounds of grasses and feathers or in underground burrows.
  • Owls’ feathers allow them to be highly camouflaged in the environments they frequent. The snowy owl’s white and black-speckled plumage blends in perfectly with the frozen tundra, while the burrowing owl’s tawny-brown feathers match its grassy, sandy home.
  • Two to three eggs are the usual clutch for larger owls. They hatch in 30 days and the young fledge in about 10 to 12 weeks. In years with abundant prey, snowy owls may lay 12 eggs, but in lean years, they may not nest at all. 

Owls are very curious and imitating their calls or squeaking on the back of your hand in the evening will often bring them near you for a closer view. “Owl Prowls” with birding guides are one of most entertaining of all bird walks. Try to find one in your area!

Have you heard that “hoo, hoo” of an owl? Share your stories below!

Read more about the great snowy owl.

About This Blog

Tom Warren has had an interest in birds since the age of 3, when he lived across from the President of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, who showed Tom how to care for injured birds. Later, a neighboring grandmother taught him the songs of warblers and thrushes, and in the eighth grade, his Middle School biology teacher took his class on birding excursions every weekend. Tom has guided bird walks and owl prowls for conservation groups, and has also participated in annual Christmas Bird Counts and the Hawk Watch on Pack Monadnock Mountain. Throughout the years, he has spent time at Pt. Pelee in Ontario observing the spring migration and has traveled to a variety of other migration areas. Tom is also committed to protecting birds and their habitat as a Trustee for both Massachusetts and New Hampshire Audubon, and the Harris Nature Center.

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Owls

I absolutely love owls. I have pictures of some short eared owls that I took about 18 years ago. Owls fascinate me and they are so beautiful. I enjoyed reading your blog on owls. Thank you.

Owls

I enjoyed Tom Warren's article on owls. I would like to add that owls trade being waterproof for being silent on the wing. If an owl gets wet it must dry out before it can fly. I learned this watching PBS.

Great Horned Owl

We live at the end of a dirt road right next to a creek on 20 acres of hills and trees in Northwest Missouri. One fall afternoon several years ago I was sitting on the front porch swing playing some tunes on my mandolin when I saw a Great Horned Owl fly into a tree at the corner of the yard next to the creek. He sat and watched and listened for nearly an hour. I couldn't believe he kept sitting there! He would cock his head and listen. Finally, I stood up slowly and kept playing while beginning to walk toward him. He stayed right where he was and kept cocking his head and listening. I got within 20 ft. of him. After several more tunes he finally flew to another tree but kept watching. I actually went to get my camera and came back out surprised to see him still there. So I managed to get a few pics before he flew away. I'll never forget that day as it seemed special. He was beautiful. We hear them a lot in the evenings calling back and forth to each other up and down the creek.

Great Horned Owl

That was a lovely story! Thanks for sharing!

OWLS

I love owls, so this article was a "hoot" for me. Please continue to share your expertise about them. Thanks!

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