October 2012 Bird Photo of the Month

Who’s Looking at Who? © Crystal Samuel
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

The Barn Owl’s unique characteristics are designed for silent hunting in darkness.  This photo by Crystal Samuels, using a Nikon D3000 with zoom lens, excellently depicts the Barn Owl’s very large head swiveling around to peer over her back at us. In her shady palm tree roost, she doses during the day and leaves to hunt at night.  Her forward facing eyes, rather than on the sides like most birds, gives her excellent binocular vision. She can hunt in very low light, too dim for our eyes.

Why “her”? We know she is female because her facial mask is darker buff with less white area around it than the male. Her darker patterned back with black spots blends in well with shadows and foliage reducing detection. The owls nest in cavities, both natural (tree holes) and human-made (barns, church steeples, haystacks and nest boxes). Females incubate the eggs and stay with the young, while the male brings food (mostly rodents). Barn Owls swallow their prey whole, then, 6-10 hours after eating, regurgitate 1-2 inch pellets that contain indigestible hair, teeth, and bones. The pellets may be found around roosting or nesting sites, offering clues about their prey.

The heart-shaped facial disk channels sound to the ears. Being asymmetrical, the ears allow accurate pinpointing of prey noises in the dark.  Barn Owls have the most accurate sound detection of any animal ever tested. Their feathers, shape, and wing design have evolved to be silent so as to swoop undetected upon their unaware prey.

Although found on every continent except Antarctica, most people seldom see these owls lurking in the shadows during the day or hunting silently after dark…unless they hear a chilling scream in the middle of the night.  This is why, along with the Barn Owl’s white underside and face and silent flight, people called them the ghost owl.

Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon

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