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Owls

Photos by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

March 15, 2010

1-29-10

I believe there is a group of birds that intrigues people more than any other kind of bird. It's a very diverse group of birds in a family with a strange name called Strigidae. They have many unique and interesting features which only add to the allure of these birds. These birds are the owls.

Owls in the strigid family range from tiny sparrow size owls all the way up to large and menacing proportions. Most, if not all, are colored with a mixture of natural tones in various patterns to make them blend into the environment during the day when they are roosting and resting.

All owls have large round heads that are almost as wide as their bodies. They look like they don't have any shoulders at all, unlike hawks. They have flat faces and some have tufts of feathers on their heads that resemble horns or ears. These horns or ears have nothing to do with hearing but it's thought to add to their daytime camouflage, allowing them to blend into an environment with many sticks and twigs.

They all have large eyes position on the front of their heads giving them a human-like appearance. In addition they have eyelids that lower from the top down adding to the eerie human resemblance. Their eyes are huge in comparison to their heads. So large in fact that the eyes take up most of the space in the skull leaving little room for the brain. The eyes are so large they can't even move around in their sockets. Having eyes that are fixed in their sockets severely limits the vision from side to side. To combat this problem, all owls have many extra vertebrate in their necks. You and I have seven vertebrae in our necks. Owls have 14 vertebrae allowing them to rotate their heads 280 degrees without shifting their body position. Despite what some might believe, they cannot turn their heads all the way around.

Owls are found in just about any habitat on the face of the earth. From the deserts to rain forests, and from the Arctic tundra to the largest cities and everywhere in-between, owls are finding homes to thrive and survive.

Biochemical evidence derived from DNA analyses supports that owls are closely related to nighthawks and nightjars. Owls are not closely related to hawks as was once thought. A similarity between owls and hawks is simply a function of convergent evolution associated with similar hunting and food needs. In other words, they both hunt for small animals and birds so they both developed similar traits such as talons and hooked beaks.

Many but not all owls hunt at night which reduces the competition with the day time (diurnal) raptors such as hawks and eagles. However there are a few owl species that hunt during the day. The Northern Hawk Owl is a good example of this. Named for it's hawk like appearance and hawk like flight, the hawk owl can be seen perched high at the top of a tree surveying the terrain for any movement of a small mammal such as a vole or mouse.

Using lightning speed reflexes, the hawk owl jumps from its perch and swoops down on the unsuspecting prey at a high rate of speed and snatches it up before it knows what hits them. Within a milli-second the hawk owl lifts the prey to it's beak, while still in flight, and delivers a killing bite to the back of the neck dispatching the prey immediately before the prey has a chance to bite or even fight back.

The Northern Hawk Owl is such an efficient hunter it can afford to cache extra prey items for later consumption. Often it will fly up to the main trunk of a tree where the bark is peeling away and will stuff the prey behind the bark. Safely stored, it will find this location later by memory to retrieve the meal.

This winter has been an amazing year for the Northern Hawk Owl. Large numbers have come down from Canada and are spending the winter in parts of the US. I have been fortunate enough to spend some time studying and photographing this magnificent owl. Let me tell you, they are amazing. Until next time

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the US to study and photograph wildlife. He can be contacted via his web page at www.NatureSmart.com

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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