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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.
Owls are highly evolved predators. Here are some of their most incredible features:
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.
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.
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!
Tom Warren is a lifelong bird enthusiast. 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. Read More from Tom Warren