Wildlife Wednesday: Celebrating International Owl Day
Did you know that this exceptional feathered creature is found on every continent, except for Antarctica?
Like hawks and eagles, owls are known as raptors. But they are different to these counterparts in many ways!
Owls are well known for their variety in size and colour, but one thing they all share in common is that piercing gaze and a head that swivels on exceptionally flexible necks – which are long, becoming evident when you look at their skeleton!
History and General facts on owls:
- ‘Owl’ is derived from the Old English word, ‘ule’.
- There are about 220 owl species, who fall into two families, based on the type of voice they have (a shrill ‘screech’ or a musical whistle or ‘hoot’).
- The two families are Strigidae (true owls) and Tytonidae (barn – owls), of which the latter account for a small distinct family of about 20 species, whose lineage split early in the owl evolution.
- Barn owls and their close relative, the African Grass-owl, differ from all others in their ‘screeching’ calls, heart-shaped facial discs, and a comb-like structure on the inside of their middle claw.
- Owls are not only nocturnal; several diurnal species exist too.
- Due to owls not chewing their food, they regurgitate undigested matter in the form of pellets.
- These pellets coincidentally are unbelievably valuable to any who wish to study the environment in which the owl resides, to determine the small mammal and vertebrate population that occur in that area.
- Oftentimes scientists have made discoveries of small rodent species, otherwise unknown to occur in an area, purely through an examination of owl pellets!!
Evolutionary adaptations of these feathered beauties:
- The evolution of the head movement is to compensate for the lack of ability to move their eyes easily in their sockets.
- Contrary to popular belief, most owls detect prey more by hearing than by eyesight, using their extremely accurate and sensitive hearing to locate their prey.
- Some species of owls have ear openings that are asymmetrical. Meaning that sounds coming from above or below the owl will be heard by one ear before the other!
- This unique placement of the ears allows the owls to determine the sound with pin-point accuracy as it creates a 3-Dimensional space, without having the need to SEE the prey.
- Those two bunches of feathers you’re accustomed to seeing at the top of the heads of some owls, have nothing to do with hearing!
- They’re called ‘tufts’, and the owls use them to communicate amongst themselves, as well as helping camouflage or disguise themselves!!
- Unlike other birds, they have modified flight feathers, muffling the sound of their wing beats when they swoop to catch their prey!
- On the note of prey – they don’t chew, they swallow it whole!
- Owls have relatively smaller body sizes in relation to their wings, another evolution allowing them to fly relatively soundlessly.
- Larger owls are known to be enemies of their own kind, having been documented killing and eating one another.
Some snippets of varied species:
- They are superb hunters when it comes to nest building though, there is much that is left to be desired!
- The Marsh and African-grass owls are the only Southern African owls that habitually nest on the ground.
- The Pel’s fishing owl hunts with speed rather than relying on the ‘silent’ stealth approach – an adaptation to suit this species since their prey can’t ‘hear’ them coming!
- They have spiky scales under their feet for holding their slippery prey.
- The Pearl-spotted owlet is also unique in that it relies on high-speed aerial pursuits of its prey that it can see, during daylight hours.
- The beautiful little Scops-owl primarily feeds on invertebrates!
Such varied and beautiful creatures that fill their own unique niche in the ecosystem!
It’s a thrill to see one of these remarkable predators in the wild.
- Melissa Gomes
Advice from an owl: stay focused, be whoo you are, trust in a wise friend, live off the land, glide through the dark times, be observant, because life’s a hoot! Ilan Shamir