Sunday, December 2, 2012

Barn Owl Fun Facts: Part 1


 Howdy folks. It’s that time again.  Time for another amazing blog for the WBS blogosphere and today we are going to delve deeper into my favorite subject. You guessed it--The Barn Owl!
You can't see this owl's ears which lie behind all the feathers on the side of its head
Ok, so, I know those who saw my last blog are probably thinking--we’ve all heard the story of Silo; we’ve gone over their amazing hearing and silent flight; everyone knows the owl basics.  However, we’ve never really gotten down to the basics of what really makes a barn owl tick.  So today, we are doing just that.
 The size of an owl's eyes are the equivalent of having two softballs in a human skull
First off, let’s refresh our memories. Barn owls, like all owls, have amazing eyesight. Naturally, hunting at night means they need to be able to see with very little light.  This is also why they need to be able to turn their heads so far around.  Getting the necessary ocular horse power means having very large eyes and having such large eyes means there isn’t enough room left for the muscles needed to rotate the eye in the socket.  Hence, fourteen vertebrae in the neck for maximum head rotation and a 270° field of view when turning their head as far as it will go.
 Minerva displaying only a small example of the amazing head rotation a Barn Owl can achieve
Barn Owls take their amazing senses to the next level over other owls via extreme hearing.  The little Tyto Alba (the genus species name for Barn Owls) is among the most acute listeners in the animal kingdom.  Their facial disks act as a sort of giant ear lobe funneling every little sound into the ear holes on either side of the head.  Factor in offset ear flap placement and they are practically hearing in 3D!  With the audio cortex taking up most of their brain, it is speculated that over the course of its life the Barn owl will learn and remember an infinite number of differences in sounds.  This may seem insignificant to many humans, but this allows Barn Owls to know exactly what kind of animal is scurrying through the grass before the prey ever sees its pursuer.
When asked to close their eyes, these children weren't even aware that this Barn Owl had come within inches of their heads
All right, that covers the senses.  Most owls, including the Barn owl, enjoy “silent flight.”  The softness of the owl feather, or at least the ruffles along the leading and trailing edges of the primary feathers (those large wing feathers furthest away from the body), acts as a sort of muffler, breaking up the air as they fly through and allowing “silent flight.”  Their prey never hears them coming.  A mouse, for example, is just standing there, minding its own business when suddenly, “SILENT FLIGHT!” and it’s viciously grabbed by a hungry Barn owl. 
This is what a mouse would see just before it's grabbed by a hungry Barn Owl
Usually when we think of owls we think nocturnal (active at night), but remember, life is a game of chance and we all seek opportunities where we are most likely to succeed.  In the Barn Owl’s case this means competing with other (in many circumstances larger) raptors (birds of prey).  So we get to use the word of the day: crepuscular.  This is a fancy little word meaning active in twilight.  For the Barn Owl coming out in the darkest part of the night means competing with other owls, making them one of the few species of owl commonly seen hunting at dawn and dusk.
Don't confuse this very light European Barn Owl for a Snowy Owl
Barn owls are also one of the most widespread owl species.  They are found on every continent except Antarctica.  Like any animals found worldwide (humans for instance) Barn owls come in all shapes and sizes.  There are over thirty known sub-species in the family Tytonidae.  The one thing you won’t find, however, is a snowy barn owl; even though Snowy Owls and Barn Owls are often confused for one another.  Barn Owl feathers lack any form of Waterproofing and they don’t put on any of the extra fat necessary for winter survival.

So this lays the groundwork.  We’ve covered the basics and are ready to get to the real meat of the matter.  If you share my love of Barn Owls, you’ll just have to come back for my next blog.

Until next time, keep on traveling.

Submitted by Neal Cowan, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

4 comments:

Bob Hilscher said...

Great pictures of the owl. That bird seems very much at home in your care. I live in Toronto, Canada, and last weekend I came upon a Barred Owl out in the forest. If your interested my pictures and video are at: http://frametoframe.ca/photo-essay-barred-owl-sighting-markham-ontario/

John Foehner said...

Great info! Barn owls are one of my favorite birds. Here's a question for you that I've never had answered... Barn owls are beautiful birds with an awesome design on their light golden/tan/white feathers. Why? It doesn't seem to be used for camouflage and a largely nocturnal bird wouldn't seem to need special coloring for ID or courting? Although most birds are pretty in one way or another, I can't figure out why barn owls look the way they do. So, why?

Photog said...

This was a great question John! So good, in fact, that it started me digging and researching. The explanation was too large to fit in the comments section of the blog. However, it prompted me to write a whole blog post on the subject. If you will keep checking back this month I'll tell our readers what your question uncovered.

WBS said...

Thanks for sharing Bob - great photos!