The Night Watchers of the Woods

Owls, elusive creatures of the night, captivate observers with their large, luminous eyes peering from the treetops and their distinctive hoots resonating through the darkness. These birds, steeped in various myths and often associated with witchcraft, are found on every continent except Antarctica, with around 250 species globally.

They fall into two main families: the barn owls (Tytonidae), recognized by their heart-shaped faces, and the typical owls (Strigidae), known for their large, round heads. Among them, the Eurasian eagle owl stands out as one of the largest, reaching up to 30 inches (75 cm) in length, while the elf owl, at a mere 5.5 inches (14 cm), claims the title of the smallest.

Left Strigidae: Tawny owl, Eurasian eagle-owl, Little owl, Northern saw-whet owl; Right Tytonidae: Barn ow, Lesser sooty ow, Tasmanian masked owl, Sri Lanka bay owl.

Left Strigidae: Tawny owl, Eurasian eagle-owl, Little owl, Northern saw-whet owl; Right Tytonidae: Barn ow, Lesser sooty ow, Tasmanian masked owl, Sri Lanka bay owl.

The vocalizations of owls are diverse and not limited to the stereotypical soft, rhythmic hoo-hoo. For instance, while the great horned owl is known for its classic hoot, the barn owl emits a sharp, piercing screech resembling a squeaky door, and the barred owl produces a sound surprisingly similar to a horse’s neigh.

The distinctive calls of owls

The distinctive calls of owls

Diet-wise, owls primarily consume small rodents, supplemented by birds, fish, insects, and occasionally larger prey like young deer and foxes. Most hunt at night, using their exceptional hearing and superior night vision. Their eyes, 2.2 times larger than those of other birds of a similar size, have a tube-like shape and are immobile. However, owls compensate for this with their highly flexible necks, which can twist up to 270 degrees, supported by a specialized blood-pooling system that maintains brain and eye functionality even when neck movement restricts circulation.

In their hunting strategy, an owl’s ears are crucial. Typically asymmetrically placed and of varying sizes, this unique arrangement enables owls to pinpoint the location of sounds accurately. Their flattened faces also serve to amplify sounds, aiding in the detection of prey.

Owls hunt by scanning for prey from a perch or in flight, but some display a distinctive hovering behavior, akin to a helicopter, over their intended target. Their feathers, softer at the edges compared to those of many other birds, provide a significant hunting advantage: the ability to descend on their prey almost silently, catching them unawares. Owls, like other birds, lack teeth and consume their prey whole or in large pieces, later coughing up indigestible parts. They also practice caching—storing food for future use.

Cross-eyed owl

Cross-eyed owl

Most owls lead solitary lives, except during winter when smaller species may roost together. They are territorial, with males vocalizing to assert dominance. During spring mating, they choose varied nesting sites, including tree holes, barns, and old nests of other birds, but never build their own.

Owls can lay up to 14 eggs, with a 2 to 4 days gap between each egg. Incubation starts with the laying of the first egg. The owlets (or nestlings) hatch after 3 to 5 weeks. Since the eggs don’t all get laid at the same time, they also don’t hatch together. This results in a size and age difference among the siblings, with the eldest being up to two weeks older and significantly larger than the youngest.

Baby owls hatch and learn to fly

Baby owls hatch and learn to fly

Both parents participate in feeding the young, with the largest chick receiving priority in times of food scarcity, a strategy that ensures its survival. After 7 to 12 weeks, owlets, now similar in size to adults, learn to hunt under their parents’ guidance before venturing out independently.

Regrettably, owl populations face decline due to habitat destruction from agriculture and development, leading to intensified competition for food. Other threats include hunting, climate change impacting prey availability, and the ingestion of poisoned rodents.

Words of wisdom

“No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” —William Blake

“Freedom lies in being bold.” —Robert Frost

“The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” —Dalai Lama

“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.” —Oprah Winfrey


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