The Northern Hawk Owl hunts in the day and has evolved hawk-like characteristics, including rapid flight and a long tail to help sudden changes in direction. (Chris Siddle photo)

Get Outdoors! and give a hoot about owls

Nature columnist explores the benefits of an owl’s plumage in its predatory patterns

You should give a hoot about owls.

Of the 19 species in Canada and the United States, B.C. has 15 owl species — 13 of which can be found in the North Okanagan.

March is the best month to hear them while they’re most active calling during their mating season.

Most owls are monogamous either seasonally or for life.

Owls have large heads, look neckless with soft-feathered, subdued earth-tone plumage and upright posture. They are medium to large birds of prey with small, hooked bills and powerful feet with sharp talons. Some have tufts that resemble horns or ears. Females look like males, but larger.

We don’t often see owls since most are nocturnal.

But if you live near them, you can occasionally see or hear them call at dusk in the spring and through the Okanagan’s warm summer nights. Their calls are distinctive hoots, wails or whistles. Owls have very acute hearing and keen eyesight in dim light, but smell is their least reliable sense.

They prey on rodents, small mammals and birds (even smaller owls), some on insects.

Owls help control rodent populations.

Owls have large, forward facing eyes on their flat, round or heart-shaped facial disk. Their eyeballs are more tube-shaped than round with a myriad of light sensitive nerve endings for low-light conditions.

They also have excellent depth perception.

Their eyes are fixed and cannot move like ours. To compensate, owls can turn their heads an incredible range of up to 270 degrees.

Like other raptors, they have 14 vertebrae in their necks, compared to humans’ seven. This head-turning ability helps more than vision; it also aids in hearing, perhaps the owl’s most important predatory feature.

When an owl slowly turns its head, it’s most likely listening rather than watching.

Owls have asymmetrically placed ear openings pointing in slightly different directions helping them pin-point sounds.

The feathers around an owl’s face hide the ears, but also works to funnel sound efficiently to them. They hunt more by sound than sight.

This allows them to hear their prey underneath the snow.

Wintering owls can hear a rodent moving under two feet of snow.

Once an owl has located its prey, it attacks in a sudden, violent swoop, using its talons to break through the snow.

Owls fly silently making them supreme nocturnal hunters.

They can even hear prey move as they fly toward it, allowing them to adjust their path in flight as necessary.

Owls wings are broad, rounded and quite large in relation to their body size, creating more lift per wing beat. Less flapping means less sound.

Their feathers are designed to muffle noise. Feathers at the leading edge of the wing have flexible bristles that break up the turbulence into smaller, less noisy currents.

Porous fringe along the feathers at the trailing end of the wings muffle the sound of air sliding off the back side. And dense, velvety down feathers covering the owl’s body and wings absorb sound.

When the hunting is good, many owls will cache food in a tree snag or nest. When the hunting is poor, owls turn opportunistic, for example, staking out birdfeeders in the hopes of catching squirrels, birds and other seed eaters.

The library has a wonderful book about owls by Frances Backhouse called Owls Of North America. It’s worth checking out.

READ MORE: Clouds are worth watching in the North Okanagan

READ MORE: Get Outdoors!: What’s going on under the ice in the Okanagan?

Watch for next month’s column about our local owls.

Roseanne shares her knowledge of the outdoors to help readers experience and enjoy nature. Follow her on Facebook for more.

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