“Who cooks for you?” “Who cooks for you all?” This is the eerie communication call of the Barred Owl that intermittently fills the night air of intact forests in our watershed including Long Sault Conservation Area. These camouflaged beauties are one of eight owl species that have been spotted in our watershed including the Great Gray Owl, Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Short-eared Owl, Snowy Owl, Long-eared Owl, Barn Owl, and the adorable robin-sized Northern Saw-whet Owl.
Owls, perfectly designed for the hunt, use their spectacular hearing, penetrating night vision, and practically noiseless flight in search of food in our local meadows and woodlands. Although most owls are nocturnal or crepuscular (twilight) hunters, some are diurnal (hunt during the day).
Owls’ eyes are so large that if owls were human-sized, their eyes would be the size of grapefruits! These large eyes not only allow them to see better than humans during the day, but 35-100 times better than us at night. But they don’t really have eye balls; instead their eyes are rather pear shaped. This means that instead of being able to rotate their eyes to see different areas, they have to move their entire head; which for owls, is no problem. While they can’t turn their heads in a full circle as is commonly believed, they can get pretty close. With twice as many neck vertebrae than people, they can swivel their noggin up to 270 degrees!
Because of their forward eye placement, unlike most animals, owls have a large field of binocular vision. This means that, similar to humans, their field of vision from one eye mostly overlaps that of the other eye. This allows for excellent depth perception—an accuracy necessary for the hunt.
In total darkness and deep snow, owls’ spectacular hearing becomes vital for the hunt. Owls’ ears are positioned asymmetrically on their heads, with one slightly higher than the other. This allows them to perceive the 3D direction of sound with enhanced accuracy. The large circles or facial discs surrounding their eyes act like satellite dishes for sound, directing soundwaves to the owl’s ears. When you think of owl ears, don’t think of the 'horns' of the Great Horned Owl; these horns are only feathered tufts designed to assist with camouflage. Instead, owl ears are located at the periphery of their facial discs, invisible beneath their feathers.
Masters of stealth, specialized wing and body feathers allow for practically noiseless flight. The eyelash-like serrated leading edge of their wings and the flexible fringe on the trailing edge of their wings breaks up the usual wind sounds caused by the aerodynamic turbulence created in flight. Their velvety-soft, sound-absorbing wing and leg feathers further muffle their flight sounds allowing them to be virtually noiseless predators for any unsuspecting mice, rabbits, moths, the occasional skunk or even smaller species of owls. Consuming small prey whole, owls regurgitate a tidy pellet of fur and bones 9-20 hours after a meal.
These apex predators prefer to remain hidden, so while you may have never seen an owl, these stealthy watershed residents have definitely seen you. Though difficult to spot, their unique vocalizations, wing prints in the snow or owl pellets announce their presence and our controlled rodent populations acknowledge their contributions.
Nature Canada's website is a great resource for a guide to Canadian owls and their sounds! Take a listen to the owl calls on their website before your next venture out to one of our Conservation Areas. You never know what you might hear... or see!
Read more about owls and how they make winter a real 'hoot' in this educational and entertaining article!
Biomimicry Institute. (2018) Wing Feathers Enable Near-Silent Flight. Retrieved from: https://asknature.org/strategy/wing-feathers-enable-near-silent-flight/#.XhyQTMhKiUk