Facts about OwlsOwls are birds from the order Strigiformes, which includes about 200 species worldwide, 16 in Canada &15 in British Columbia. They are mostly solitary and nocturnal birds of prey typified by an upright stance, a large, broad head, binocular vision, binaural hearing, sharp talons, and feathers adapted for silent flight. Owls hunt mostly small mammals, insects, and other birds, although a few species specialize in hunting fish. They are found in all regions of the Earth except Antarctica and some remote islands.
What makes an Owl an Owl?
Owl flight feathers are soft with a comb-like leading edge that gives them a whisper silent flight.
Unlike most other birds, owls have two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing back. This gives their large, strong feet and needle-sharp talons extra strength in holding prey with a vice-like grip.
Razor sharp mandibles that help them tear flesh of the prey. They attack with their feet and sharp talons, but rip up prey with their beaks. Most owls swallow small prey such as mice whole.
Undigested fur, feathers and bone are molded into pellets in an owl’s stomach and coughed up at day roosts. They can vary in size and colour depending on the owl species and the prey. Pellets yield valuable information about the prey of owls, since you can identify animals by their bones—and sometimes even tell whether they were male or female, old or young.
Many young owls will leave the nest site as soon as they can stand on their large fast-growing legs, before they can fly properly. At this stage they occasionally fall to the ground, where they are at risk from predators. Young owls are tended by their parents longer than most birds since it takes time to develop the hunting skills necessary to survive on their own. Most of them are independent by the end of summer, but young Great Horned Owls can sometimes be heard begging for food in early winter!
Smaller species such as Northern Saw-whet Owls normally live for 5 to 8 years in the wild, but larger species such as Great Horned Owls can survive for 25 or more years. All species will survive longer in captivity; perhaps double the life-span of wild birds.
Unlike most birds (but like hawks and eagles), female owls are almost always larger than males. So if you see two owls sitting side by side, the big one is the female. But although males are smaller, they have deeper voices when they hoot! Young owls (and young birds in general) are as big as they are ever going to be by the time they can fly.
Sense of Smell
Most birds, including owls, have a rather poorly developed sense of smell. This might explain why Great Horned Owls don’t mind hunting skunks!
Owls have large, tubular eyes with round lenses, making them twice as sensitive as those of humans in low light situations, but the design that accomplishes this means their eyes lack the keen resolution typical of day-hunting raptors such as hawks and eagles. During the day, their visual acuity is about five times lower than humans.
Owl eyes are placed facing forward on large, flat facial disks, giving them a human-like appearance that differs from most birds. This gives them some binocular vision so they can judge distances, but forces them to turn their heads to look around, since, like most birds, owls cannot move their eyes in their sockets. Fortunately, like all birds, owls have long and flexible necks, so they can turn their heads as much as 270 degrees, compared to the 180 degrees of the average human. Unlike most birds, owls have a very imperfect ability to distinguish colours, since their retinas are dominated by rod cells, which are very sensitive to light but cannot distinguish colour. A protective translucent third eyelid, called the nictitating membrane, protects they eyes from being scratched as they fly through grass and branches.
Most owls detect and catch their prey primarily by sound. Their saucer-like facial discs are their external ears, directing sound towards the large ear openings on the side of the head. Some owls have asymmetric ears—being shaped differently on the right and left side. This allows them to detect exactly where a sound is coming from in all three dimensions, unlike the two-dimensional hearing of most animals. This lets them catch rodents under the snow—and Great Gray Owls often catch pocket-gophers in their tunnels just under the surface of the ground.
Most owls roost close to the trunk of a tree. The perch combined with their shape and mottled grey-brown coloration camouflages them well. Those species with “ear” tufts will often raise them in this situation, making them look more like a broken branch than a bird.
All owls lay very round, pure white eggs.
Sounds that Owls Make
All owls have species-specific calls that they use in courtship or to mark their territory; Most of these calls have a hollow hooting quality, but the calls of some small owls are more whistle-like. Other calls are used to simply let other members of their species—usually their mates or young—know where they are. All owls have alarm calls, usually have a sharp, barking quality, to warn others about the presence of predators or other danger. Juvenile owls give distinct calls when hungry to let their parents know where to bring food—these usually have a hissing, rasping or screeching quality.
Value to Mankind
Owls are essential in controlling rodent populations. Some species eat a variety of insects that are considered pests. Other species feed on larger mammals such as rabbits or skunks. Healthy owl populations are a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
Reference Library – Owls
Cornell University Lab of Ornithology has kindly provided links for greater detail on each bird listed below. Click on the link to get specific information on identification, habitat, sounds & much more.