Really Odd Owls

09/24/2010

DM Barn Owl Legend of Guardians National Wildlife Federation is the education partner for the new animated movie Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole and I spent most of this week out in Los Angeles hanging out with some beautiful barn owls and doing media interviews, and it got me thinking about all of the odd facts about these nocturnal birds of prey. 

Killers in the Dark
Owls have specially-designed feathers that allow them to flap their wings in almost complete silence.  They also have huge eyes that allow them to see in almost complete darkness.  Both of these traits help make owls superb nighttime hunters, but most people don't know that there's another sense employed by owls that is even more important than night vision and silent flight.  Their ears.

Contrary to popular belief, the feathers that stick up off the top of the heads of some owl species aren't their ears.  Those feathers are really just there for ornamentation or for threat or courtship displays.  Owls do have ears, but unlike most mammals, they have no external ear.  Owls' ears are literally just two holes in the side of their heads hidden beneath the feathers.  Even stranger, owl ears are not symmetrically opposite each other on an their head. Instead, one sits just above the eye on one side, and the other sits below the eye on the other side.  This asymmetry, combined with their satellite dish-shaped heads that funnel sound directly into the ears and special sound-conducting feathers, gives owls the ability to pinpoint and capture prey without even being able to see it.  In fact, in studies barn owls have been documented to catch prey with absolutely no light at all using nothing but their hearing.

Big Eyes and Twisty Necks
Owl Eyes FLICKR The ability of an owl to turn its head all the way around is just a myth, but even so, owls CAN turn their heads an amazing 270 degrees.  The reason is that owls have incredibly large eyes, as mentioned above. Owl eyes are so large that the birds actually can't move them inside their skull to look around because the eyeballs would bang into each other. There's just not enough room inside their skulls. As a result owl eyes are fixed looking forward.  In order to be able to see what's around them, owls have to actually turn their entire heads to directly face whatever they want to look at and have evolved to be able to turn their heads completely over either shoulder to see what's behind them (courtesy of 14 neck vertebrae, twice the number of most other animals).

Bulimic Birds
Owl Barfing Pellet Owls have really diverse diets and eat all sorts of things.  Depending on the species of owl, everything from rodents to snakes to bugs to birds can be on the menu - even other owls!  Barred owls love to eat frogs and snakes which share their wet woodland habitat.  Tiny elf owls love to eat insects while the much larger great horned owl, on the other hand, prefers bigger prey such as rabbits and opossums.  Even odder, like most birds, great horned owls don't have a strong sense of smell and as a result love to eat skunks!

Regardless of what they eat, however, owls engage in a truly odd food-related behavior: after a meal they barf up all of the indigestible materials from their prey.  These regurgitated masses are called owl pellets and are usually made up of fur, feathers, insect shells and bones. If you dissect an owl pellet you can sometimes find intact skulls or even complete skeletons of whatever that particular owl has eaten!

More on Owls
I got to see an advance screening of Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole this week, and it's a great family-friendly adventure.  The animation is amazing and while it's purely a fantasy film, the owls look incredibly realistic.  As a naturalist, I was impressed.  National Wildlife Federation has created a whole bunch of owl activities, websites and other fun materials in relation to the movie to help people understand and protect owls in the wild.  The movie opens in theaters TODAY (Friday, September 24th) so be sure to check it out.  Here's the official trailer:

Photo of owl regurgitating pellet by artolog and photo of owl eyes by johnmuk, both via Flickr.  Photo of me with the barn owl is my own.


David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. His goal is to inspire others to appreciate the wonders of nature. Meet David >
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