Owls are our nocturnal neighbors, leading secretive lives in woods and fields around us. Rarely seen during the day, they can be hard to spot at night. Here are 12 things to know about these elusive birds:
- The fossil record indicates that owls originated more than 60 million years, probably about the time dinosaurs went extinct.
- The world is home to 220 to 225 living owl species, depending on which taxonomist you ask.
- Most owls feed on small birds and mammals, though some are specialists at preying on fish.
- A nesting pair of Barn Owls may consume some 3,000 rodents while raising their young.
- Males catch food for themselves, their offspring, and their mates, which stay on nests while incubating eggs and caring for young; if food is scarce, however, the male eats first.
- Most owls are active at night (nocturnal) but some are active by day (diurnal). One diurnal owl is the Burrowing Owl, often associated with prairie dog towns in the West, where they can be seen bowing politely to one another on the mounds surrounding prairie dog holes.
- Night-hunting owls are the stealth bombers of the bird world, equipped with large eyes specially adapted to seeing in darkness, and with ears structured to pick up the slightest sound, giving them advantages over their less acutely equipped prey.
- The feathered disks around the eyes of owls help to funnel sound to the ears, and owls can move the feathers to accentuate sounds.
- The eyes of owls are placed side by side in the skull, giving the birds excellent depth perception highly useful for zeroing in on prey.
- Adaptations in the neck bones allow owls to turn their heads 270 degrees, giving them a wide field of view.
- Owl flight feathers have fringe-like or serrated edges that muffle the sound of flying owls, allowing them to sneak up on prey.
- Owls regurgitate indigestible parts of their prey, such as bones and teeth, in pellets that biologists can use to study owl eating habits.
The world’s smallest owl is the Elf Owl, about 5 inches long and weighing 1 ounce. Two species are rivals for largest species: the Eurasian Eagle-Owl and Blakiston’s Fish Owl, both of which can measure up to 28 inches long and weigh in excess of 9 pounds; however, the great gray owl is longer, at up to 33 inches, so some birders contend that it is the largest owl species, though it is roughly half the weight of the other two.
To learn dozens of more things about owls, attend the ASNV Audubon Afternoon program “A Year in the Life of an Owl,” Sunday, September 30, in Reston. The program tells you what owls in Virginia are doing from January through December, including courtship, nesting, raising young, fledging, and dispersal of young. You also will have the opportunity to meet live owls up close in a kid-friendly environment. For more information, click here.