• Sara Thompson

The What, Where, and Who of Owls

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise


Owl
Hollingsworth, John and Karen, Photo by USFS Region 5 (Pacific Southwest)

Owls are some of the most recognizable birds in the world. With over 200 species worldwide, owls are found most anywhere on earth except the extreme polar regions and a handful of remote islands. Owls are separated into two main families: Strigidae and Tytonidae. The distinction between the two families comes from differences in the skeletal structures of the sternum and feet of the animals. Despite those skeletal differences, most owls of both families still have a number of the same adaptations that have made owls some of the most beautiful and mysterious birds in the world.


Owls are best known for being nocturnal, or awake and active at night, but they are not the only ones. Some species of night hawk, herons, and kiwi are also nocturnal. There are also several owl species that are up and around during the day, such as burrowing owls, and others that are crepuscular, or active during the transition times of dusk and dawn. One of the main draws for owls being nocturnal is their hunting style. Owls are birds of prey, hunting primarily small rodents, they will also hunt insects, small reptiles and amphibians, and some species have adapted to hunting fish. Owls will be active and hunting whenever their prey is, but the darkness of night and twilight hours help conceal the owl to their prey.


Another effective hunting adaptation owls have is their feathers. The feathers on an owl’s wing have an almost serrated look to them instead of a smooth edge like in other birds of prey. The serrations, along with a soft, velvety surface of the flight feathers make an owl’s wing almost completely silent. The sound is reduced enough for the owl’s prey to not hear it but is still withing the hearing range of other owls, so they can hear each other and not collide while active at night.


Owls also have unique eyes. They have one of the largest eye to skull size in the animal kingdom, making their mostly nocturnal lifestyle possible. Larger eyes mean larger pupils, which will let in more light, even in some of the most extreme low-light situations. Owl eyes are supported by the sclerotic ring in the skull and cannot move on their own. Owls must move their entire head in order to survey their surroundings. This has given them the ability to turn their heads nearly 270o to look around, giving owls their fame of being able to turn their heads all the way around to look behind them.


Owls are one of the more fascinating birds of prey because of all of their unique adaptions to hunting and being silent in doing so. Winter is a good time to try to see these magnificent birds because area trees do not have as many leaves to hide the animal. If you sit outside in the evening or night, perhaps you could hear their distinctive calls.

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