Night moves: Owls own skies after sunset

March 4, 2015





Cloaked in darkness, owls rule the night.


The hours they keep make it hard for mere mortals to witness that they are the true winged superheroes of the hunting world. Given their hunting prowess, mysterious nocturnal nature and seeming physical superpowers, it is no wonder they are seen in many cultures as mythical creatures to be feared and respected.


Few creatures have as many contradicting beliefs surrounding them as do owls. Different cultures hold a wide range of beliefs about owls, ranging from wise and good to harbingers of death and bad luck. There is much blurring of fact and fiction in the owl mystique, so what, exactly, makes owls so incredibly effective at survival?


Mystery aside, the fact is, owls are physically built to hunt with every sense and body part honed into finely tuned instruments. Their eyes occupy up to 70 percent of the skull (vs. 5 percent in humans), allowing in as much light as possible to enable them to see in the dark.


Despite what many people think, owls are not able to turn their heads completely around; however, the bird’s neck and spine are constructed to allow a 270-degree rotation increasing their ability to spot prey in any direction and position their head for optimum hearing.


Their hearing apparatus is a marvel in the scientific world and may be their most valuable tool. The owl’s whole head is constructed for optimal hearing. Most people mistake the ear tufts for the part responsible for hearing, however, they are mostly ornamental and used to emit emotion. 


Their true ears are asymmetrically placed on each side of the head. Stiff facial feathers help channel sound while the ears’ uneven placement helps them pinpoint height and direction of the sound. Their round face is shaped like a satellite to better funnel sound. 


Hearing and sight are not the owls’ only superpowers — their flight is completely silent and they are very territorial hunters, which means they mentally map their surroundings. With this combination of the mental picture and superhearing, owls sometimes don’t even need to be able to see their prey to be successful — very handy in the dark! 


The Pueblo Zoo is currently home to two owls — a Eurasian eagle-owl named Jaeger and a barn owl named Zephyr. This spring, the zoo is expecting to receive a female eagle-owl to keep Jaeger company.



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