Readers’ wildlife: owls! (and a new piece on owl research)

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 forum, but I thought I’d put up three species of owls snapped by Diane. There are two videos, too!

Two shots of the great gray owl (Strix nebulosa). What an intimidating glare! (Go here and click on upper left to hear the variety of sounds it makes.)

great grey owl

Great gray owl2

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).

hawk 3

Northern Hawk owl

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:

Look at that monster!

Look at that monster!

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:


  1. el_slapper
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    “Would that owls might lend us their ears.”

    errrrm, do you really want hearing EVERY speech of every table in the restaurant? Too good is sometimes as bad as not good enough.

  2. George
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    “…the owl surely vies with the penguin for the position of My Favorite Bird.” NO WAY!!!! The penguin is no competition for the owl. It cannot even fly. How does sliding on ones belly compare to the flight of a raptor?

    If you cannot wait for Jerry’s post on how an owl is able to rotate its head 270, check out this report from NPR’s Science Friday:

    • gbjames
      Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink

      Hey! Penguins can fly very well. They just do it under water.

  3. John Harshman
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    “…recent genetic analysis links the owls to other nocturnal birds, like nightjars.”

    Big surprise to me. Are you sure? According to most recent genetic analyses, owls belong to the big group (still without a formal name) called “land birds”, while nightjars are far outside this group, somewhere around the base of Neoaves.

    As for the head-turning, a bit of comparative biology would have been good here. Sure, owls have twice as many vertebrae as mammals, but so do all birds. And as far as I can tell, most or all birds can turn their heads about as far, or farther. The reason we think owls are weird is that they look as if they have no necks, and that their heads are pivoting on a solid base. But really, they have long, skinny necks and unusually big heads, all covered with very fluffy feathers so you can’t see the necks operating. Is anyone surprised when a duck sleeps with his head resting, turned 180 degrees, on his back? No, because you can see that happening. And so I wonder if any of the cool anatomy shown here is peculiar to owls, or is instead just how birds are.

  4. JBlilie
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Wow, lucky you, Diane! Nice haul!

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 26, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Thank you, I was lucky indeed!

    • Posted February 26, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      Ditto. Thanks, Diane.

  5. Michael Day
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Hey Jerry,
    I have a birding friend whose sister traveled to the Georgia coast late last year to see an errant snowy owl. Not sure if this particular owl is still in residence down here. Here is a report from the Georgia Conservancy:

  6. lamacher
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    I have a set of Edward Lear’s bird drawings, and the owls are terrific. The Blakiston owl looks just like what he calls the ‘eagle owl’.

  7. Jim Johnson
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    Do we really need to invoke this to explain why a carnivore’s eyes evolved into stereoscopic ones in the center of the face?

    • Thanny
      Posted February 26, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      When the carnivore in question uses hearing more than sight to hunt, it’s something we should at least consider.

  8. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Diane, thank you so much for sharing this.

    And, the idea of going somewhere to go birding, even though it’s foreign to me, opens up the larger world of species. Because of twice-a-day milking, I’m pretty much tied to my little corner of the world, although there are several small ecosystems right around here that I can visit.

    I only live three miles from Quarai, and I go birding there fairly often. I have been astonished at how many out-of-staters I’ve met there who have come from all over the place just to go birding there, particularly in the spring and fall when the migrations are taking place. I have been here five years, and I have yet to make it to their May seminar. It’s free, but you have to sign up in advance, and I can never remember to do that until it’s too late and it’s already full.

    And, your photography is stunning!! L

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 26, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      Thank you very much, Linda. But any good shots are mostly due to luck & good weather.

      I’d just been musing about how I always think the cool birds are somewhere else–while the sandhill cranes fly over my house as I type! Human nature, I guess.

      But of course you have to leave your biome to see a lot of species, like these arctic/subarctic nesters. (Usually–Snowy Owl irruptions are a nice example of exceptions to that rule!)

      (Given climate change, perhaps we’d better see them while we can!)

      I’m just your stereotypical empty nester finding more time on her hands–there must be plenty of rewards to running a goat operation! The one time I had a milking doe, I developed massive sympathy for dairy-people, time-wise.

      My husband & I are still limited in traveling by the difficulties of finding an animal sitter for all the creatures that remained at home when the kids left. Easy to see why Jerry doesn’t allow himself a cat!

      • Linda Grilli Calhoun
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        I’m about a two hour drive from Bosque del Apache, where the sandhills and whoopers winter, but I hardly ever get there. There’s another bosque bird sanctuary about an hour from here, and I’ve been there several times. There are sandhills there, but no whoopers that I’ve ever seen. Lots of duck species, too.

        I have seen lots of neat birds just walking in the woods at the end of my road, too – great horned owls, turkey vultures, a couple of eagle species, and of course, redtails. I once saw an entire flock of turkey vultures, all facing the same direction, like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

        And, just sitting in my office and seeing who comes to the feeders is the lazy birder’s technique. L

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 28, 2013 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

          ” . . . the lazy birder’s technique . . .”

          Oh, yes. I once told my birding forum that I was ‘couch birding’ that day, and a wag was quick to respond, “any lifers?”

          (BTW–if you’ve seen a couple of eagle species, you’ve seen ’em all, U.S.-wise. 😀 )

  9. Posted February 26, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    There are few things cuter than a yawning owl. Go ahead…Google image search it.

  10. TofurkeyKarma
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Jerry, how wrong can you be, 😉 the juvenile Malay Eagle Owl’s, (Bubo sumatranus) whitish feathers and dark bulbous eyes, make it the cutest owl in the forest, uhm jungle. Okay, okay their dark irises give them a bit of a soulless “Grim Reaper” stare. But adults are the coolest of the owls too. This species has a most Yodaesque visage, with long eye-brow feathers and light eyelids that sometimes give it an air of resignation. But I try not to anthropomorphize them too much, they don’t like that!

    Not to be confused with the Spot-bellied Eagle Owl (Bubo nipalensis), sometimes mislabeled as the aforementioned as in this YouTube video:

    Eschewing the pie-face plumage of other owl species, they have evolved to the more full-on raptor style following Gary Larson’s adage, “Birds of prey know they’re cool.”

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 26, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      Those are definitely all the cutest owl. 😀

      And thanks for reminding me of that Larson cartoon!

  11. M Janello
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Here’s a pygmy owl (I’m pretty sure) getting its head massaged:

  12. mamerica1
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    This past Sunday I saw what I believe was a Great Horned Owl in a tree outside of the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. My older son (7 years old) called it a “cat owl” – I believe in reference to the “horns” giving the bird a cat-like appearance. Interestingly, as my younger son (4) walked under the tree, the owl tracked him before appearing to decide that he wasn’t suitable prey (that is my guess, anyway, in part because the owl didn’t similarly track my movements).

    Given that many of the animals in the museum are dead and stuffed, seeing actual wildlife just outside the doors was a treat.

    Video of owls in Golden Gate Park:

  13. Strider
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Occasionally, one can see Snowy Owls around Chicago’s lakefront in winter. I had the good fortune to watch one perched atop one of the food vending buildings at Montrose Harbor two winters ago.

  14. Ryan
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    A couple quick thoughts.

    The burrowing owl is extremely adorable. I think it has the pygmy and elfs beat in terms of cuteness.

    Also, I can’t believe you posted about owls and didn’t mention the Great Horned Owl. I’m not saying you had an official owl obligation, but you’re taking an owl risk. Great Horned Owls are dangerous, have been known to steal nests from other birds, and will even hunt skunks, not to mention just about everything else that moves.

    Great owl post.

  15. Mary Canada
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful pictures. Thanks for posting

  16. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted February 27, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    As a confirmed wol-o-phile, I agree with your final statement that

    Owls are at their cutest when they’re small:

    But … one look at those claws and beak and you’re left in no doubt at all about the beast’s lifestyle.
    I wouldn’t show that picture to a mouse!

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