This weekend, reader Diane G. went on a birding trip to northern Michigan, and, still juiced from her avian adventure, sent me some of her photos with this excited note:
I am still on cloud nine after a fantastic Michigan Audubon Society field trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula this past week-end. We could not have had a better time–weather-wise, group-&-leader-wise, and especially bird-wise!
All of her photos, and a description of the trip, can be found at the whatbird.com forum, but I thought I’d put up three species of owls snapped by Diane. There are two videos, too!
And a video of the great gray, showing how far it can turn its head. (Many owls can swivel their heads a full 270°. Researchers have recently found how the owl’s anatomy permits this, and I’ll post about it soon.)
The northern hawk owl, with the mellifluoous name Surnia ulula. (click on the upper left of the link to hear its calls).
And a video. Note the head-swivelling again; it’s as if it’s a toy owl with its head on a stick:
And my second favorite owl (favorite is the pygmy owl), the magnificent snowy owl, Bubo scandiacus.
Fortuitously, Natalie Angier (fellow winner of the EHNC award) had a nice piece on these birds in yesterday’s New York Times, “The owl comes into its own.“ It’s written in her inimitable humorous style, but has, as usual, lots of interesting biology, including these tidbits (bullet points are direct quotes from her piece):
- In the Western imagination, the owl surely vies with the penguin for the position of My Favorite Bird. “Everyone loves owls,” said David J. Bohaska, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, who discovered one of the earliest owl fossils. “Even mammalogists love owls.”
- Researchers have discovered, for example, that young barn owls can be impressively generous toward one another, regularly donating portions of their food to smaller, hungrier siblings — a display of altruism that is thought to be rare among nonhuman animals, and one that many a small human sibling might envy.
- The scientists also discovered that barn owls express their needs and desires to each other through a complex, rule-based series of calls, trills, barks and hoots, a language the researchers are now seeking to decipher.
- Other researchers are tracking the lives of some of the rarer and more outlandishly proportioned owls, like the endangered Blakiston’s fish owl of Eurasia. Nearly a yard high, weighing up to 10 pounds and with a wingspan of six feet, Blakiston’s is the world’s largest owl, a bird so hulking it’s often mistaken for other things, according to Jonathan Slaght of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia program. It could easily look like a bear in a tree or a man on a bridge.Or maybe Ernest Hemingway. This powerful predator can pull from the river an adult salmon two, three or more times its own weight, sometimes grabbing onto a tree root with one talon to help make the haul.
Okay, so when I read this I immediately had to see a Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni). Here’s a photo and a movie:
A video from Japan:
More from Natalie’s piece:
- Owls were long thought to be closely related to birds of prey like hawks and eagles, which they sometimes superficially resemble — hence the names hawk owls and eagle owls. But similarities of beak or talon turn out to be the result of evolutionary convergence on optimal meat-eating equipment, and recent genetic analysis links the owls to other nocturnal birds, like nightjars.
- Would that owls might lend us their ears. Species like the barn, barred, screech and horned have some of the keenest auditory systems known, able to hear potential prey stirring deep under leaves, snow or grass, identify the rodent species and even assess its relative plumpness or state of pregnancy, based on sound alone.Again scientists attribute that to a consortium of traits. Prof. Tim Birkhead of the University of Sheffield points out in his new book, “Bird Sense,” that the owl cochlea is “enormous” and densely packed with sensory cilia. The barn owl, for example, has three times the number of hair cells expected for its body size. The paired ear openings are also exceptionally large and asymmetrically placed on either side of the skull, the better to help localize a sound’s origin; the super-swively neck further enhances the power to sample the ambient soundscape.Then there is the owl’s famously flat face, also called the facial disk — pie-shaped in some species, heart-shaped Kabuki in the barn owl. The facial disk serves as a kind of satellite dish, to gather sound waves, which are then directed to the owl’s ears by stiff, specialized feathers along the disk circumference.Even the owl’s forward-facing eyes may have as much to do with hearing as with vision. Graham Martin of the University of Birmingham has proposed that with so much of the lateral real estate on the owl’s skull taken up by the giant ear openings, the only place left to position its eyes is in the middle of the face.
Let’s end with a photo of my favorite owl, the northern pygmy owl (Glaucidium gnoma). Owls are at their cutest when they’re small: