Learn something about one of the most fascinating families of birds.
It’s late at night, and a wood mouse is scurrying across the forest floor. Far above, on a pine branch, a hunter hears the soft patter of its feet. In an instant, the hunter swoops down and snatches the mouse in its powerful talons. Back on the branch, the hunter swallows its prey on one gulp. The hunter is an owl, a member of one of the most fascinating families of birds.
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There are more than 130 kinds of owls in the world. They are found in every part of the world. Snowy owls are at home in the Artic tundra. Burrowing owls inhabit grasslands. Elf owls live in deserts. Screech owls live in towns and cities. Woodland owls make their homes from the cool pine forests of the north to the tropical rain forests. Owls also vary greatly in size. The smallest are the elf owl of the southwestern United States and the least pygmy owl of Central and South America. They are only about 5 inches long. The largest owls are the eagle owl of Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa. They measure about 30 inches.
Owls all have the same general shape, a large head with a hooked beak, no neck to speak of, and large feet with sharp claws. And since all owls are meat-eaters, they use their claws to grasp and hold a victim. Owls have huge eyes. They are much larger than those of other birds, and they help owls to see even in the dimmest light. In addition, the eyes are set to face forward rather than to the side like most birds eyes. This allows an owl to judge distance when catching prey. But an owl cannot move its eyes from side to side. Instead, the owl turns its head.
Owls also have a remarkable sense of hearing. An owl’s hearing is far more sensitive than human hearing. Many owls can tell with pinpoint accuracy where a sound is coming from. Thus they can hunt in almost total darkness. Owls need these super senses because most are nocturnal which is they hunt for their food by night. And not all owls call”whoo, whoo”. Many owls’ calls are strange, ranging from bone-chilling hoots to unearthly shrieks.
An owl’s skill as a hunter makes it valuable in controlling pests. A pair of barn owls can eat about 1,300 rats a year. Despite this helpful role, owls have often been hunted by people. And they are sometimes killed by pesticides. But the greatest danger facing many kinds of owls today is the destruction of their habitats.
Among those in danger are the northern spotted owls, which live only in the forest of the Pacific Northwest. As more and more timber is taken from these forests, the owls have fewer places to live. Only a few thousand of these owls now remain. Environmentalists want logging to be stopped. But timber industry says that logging is important to the area’s economy.
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And what’s on an owls menu? Most owls’ favorite foods are mice and other small rodents. And like the barn owl, they usually swallow their prey whole, fur, bones, and all. But an owl can’t digest fur and bone. Instead, these materials are packed into pellets inside the owl’s stomach. Every so often, the owl burps up a pellet, and it’s dropped on the ground. Owl pellets look like fuzzy lumps. If you find one, you can take it apart to see what was on the owl’s menu. First, soak the pellet in warm water, and then gently pull it apart with tweezers. You might find skulls, jaws, beaks, teeth, fur and feathers.