15 Mysterious Facts About Owls

Owls are enigmatic birds, by turns mysterious, lovable, or spooky, depending on who you ask. With over 200 species living on every continent except Antarctica, owls have super-tuned senses that help them hunt prey all over the world. And they’re pretty darn cute, too.

1. OWLS CAN TURN THEIR HEADS ALMOST ALL THE WAY AROUND—BUT NOT QUITE.

It’s a myth that owls can rotate their heads 360 degrees. The birds can actually turn their necks 135 degrees in either direction, which gives them 270 degrees of total movement. According to scientists, bone adaptations, blood vessels with contractile reservoirs, and a supporting vascular network allow the owls to turn their heads that far without cutting off blood to the brain.

2. OWLS HAVE FAR-SIGHTED, TUBULAR EYES. 

Instead of spherical eyeballs, owls have "eye tubes" that go far back into their skulls—which means their eyes are fixed in place, so they have to turn their heads to see. The size of their eyes helps them see in the dark, and they're far-sighted, which allows them to spot prey from yards away. Up close, everything is blurry, and they depend on small, hair-like feathers on their beaks and feet to feel their food.

3. THEY HAVE SUPER-POWERED HEARING. 

Owls are capable of hearing prey under leaves, plants, dirt, and snow. Some owls have sets of ears at different heights on their heads, which lets them locate prey based on tiny differences in sound waves. Other owls have flat faces with special feathers that focus sound, essentially turning their faces into one big ear. (The “ear tufts” on some owls are feathers.)

4. OWL FLIGHT IS SILENT.

Unlike most birds, owls make virtually no noise when they fly. They have special feathers that break turbulence into smaller currents, which reduces sound. Soft velvety down further muffles noise.

5. OWLS SWALLOW PREY WHOLE, THEN BARF UP THE CARCASS. 

Getting killed by an owl is gruesome. First the owl grabs the prey and crushes it to death with its strong talons. Then, depending on the size, it either eats the prey whole or rips it up. The owl’s digestive tract processes the body, and the parts that can’t be digested, like fur and bones, are compacted into a pellet, which the owl later regurgitates. Sometimes, those pellets are collected for kids to dissect in school.

6. THEY SOMETIMES EAT OTHER OWLS. 

Not only do owls eat surprisingly large prey (some species, like the eagle owl, can even grab small deer), they also eat other species of owls. Great horned owls, for example, will attack the barred owl. The barred owl, in turn, sometimes eats the Western screech-owl. In fact, owl-on-owl predation may be a reason why Western screech-owl numbers have declined.

7. OWLS FEED THE STRONGEST BABIES FIRST.

As harsh as it sounds, the parents always feed the oldest and strongest owlet before its sibling. This means that if food is scarce, the youngest chicks will starve. After an owlet leaves the nest, it often lives nearby in the same tree, and its parents still bring it food. If it can survive the first winter on its own, its chances of survival are good.

8. THEY'RE MASTERS OF CAMOUFLAGE. 

Many owls sleep in broad daylight, but the colors and markings on their feathers—like the African Scops Owl, above—let them blend in with their surroundings.

9. SOMETIMES THEY MAKE A TERRIFYING HISSING NOISE. 

Aside from hooting, owls make a variety of calls, from screeches to whistles to squeaks. The barn owl hisses when it feels threatened, which sounds like something from a nightmare.

10. ELF OWLS LIVE IN CACTI.

The smallest owl is the elf owl, which lives in the southwestern United States and Mexico. It will sometimes make its home in the giant saguaro cactus, nesting in holes made by other animals. However, the elf owl isn’t picky and will also live in trees or on telephone poles.

11. BURROWING OWLS TAKE OVER PRAIRIE DOG TOWNS—AND HUNT WITH POOP.

The long-legged burrowing owl lives in South and North America. One of the few owls that is active during the daytime, it nests in the ground, moving into tunnels excavated by other animals such as prairie dogs. They’ll also dig their own homes if necessary. Then, they'll surround the entrances to their burrows with dung and "sit at the burrow entrance all day long and it looks like they're doing nothing," University of Florida zoologist Douglas Levey told National Geographic. But they're not doing nothing: They're fishing. The poop is bait for dung beetles, one of the owls' favorite types of prey. "Everybody who studies burrowing owls knows they bring dung back to their burrows, and they know that burrowing owls eat a lot of dung beetles. But nobody had put two and two together," Levey, co-author of a 2004 study announcing the behavior, said.

12. OWLS ARE NATURAL PEST CONTROL FOR FARMERS. 

Owls eat a lot of rodents. A single barn owl family will eat 3000 rodents in a four-month breeding cycle. One owl can eat 50 pounds of gophers in a year. Many farmers are installing owl nesting boxes in the hopes that owls will clean out pests like gophers and voles from their land. This natural form of pest control is safer and cheaper than using poison, and it’s better for the owls too. Many owls die each year from eating rodents that have been poisoned.

13. OWLS WERE ONCE A SIGN OF VICTORY IN BATTLE ... 

In ancient Greece, the Little Owl was the companion of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, which is one reason why owls symbolize learning and knowledge. But Athena was also a warrior goddess and the owl was considered the protector of armies going into war. If Greek soldiers saw an owl fly by during battle, they took it as a sign of coming victory. 

14. ... AND A SYMBOL OF DEATH. 

From ancient times on, owls have been linked with death, evil, and other superstitions. Many cultures saw owls as a sign of impending death. For example, an owl was said to have predicted the death of Julius Caesar. They’ve also been associated with witches and other so-called evil beings. While this may sound like Halloween fun, many cultures still have superstitions about owls and in some places, owls are killed based on these beliefs.

15. OWLS AND HUMANS GENERALLY GET ALONG.

Owls have been popular since ancient times. They show up in Egyptian hieroglyphs and the 30,000-year-old cave paintings in France. Falconers have used owls since the Middle Ages, although not as commonly as other birds. Today, we still love owls. Though it’s illegal to keep them as pets in the United States, they’re intelligent and sociable. (Most of the time, anyway—owls can attack humans when feeling threatened.) In Japan, there are even owl cafés, where you can hang out with owls while drinking tea. 

13 Fascinating Facts About Pallas’s Cats

iStock.com/NEALITPMCCLIMON
iStock.com/NEALITPMCCLIMON

Far across the world, an elusive—and adorable—wildcat called the Pallas’s cat (also known as the manul) roams the grasslands and steppes of Central Asia and Eurasia. Get to know the flat-faced, furry kitty, which has been featured in memes and viral videos and recently received its own wildlife preserve in Asia’s Altai Mountains.

1. It's named after naturalist Peter Pallas.

German naturalist Peter Pallas first described the furry wildcat in 1776. He named the kitty Felis manul, and theorized that it was an ancestor of the Persian cat, due to its round face, luxurious coat, and stocky body. (He was wrong.)

2. Its scientific name means "ugly-eared."

Later on, the cat's scientific name was changed from Felis manul to Otocolobus manul—not exactly the most flattering moniker, since Otocolobus is Greek for “ugly-eared.”

3. Its unusual ears come in handy.

Some may consider the Pallas’s cat’s ears to be ugly, while others might think they’re adorable. Arguments aside, the cat’s round ears—which sit flat on the sides of its head—are one of the feline's most distinguishing features. As Crystal DiMiceli, a former wild animal keeper at Brooklyn's Prospect Park Zoo, explains in the above video, having low-positioned ears helps the cat conceal itself—they don’t poke up to reveal the animal's position while it's hiding or hunting.

4. It has a dense, plush coat.

The coat of the Pallas's cat is its true crowning glory. It’s longer and denser than any other coat belonging to a member of the Felid species (growing in even heavier in the winter), and the undercoat on its belly is twice as long as the fur covering the rest of its body. The shade ranges from silvery grey during the winter to a darker, red-toned hue during warmer months. (Some cats are also red, particularly in Central Asia.) Its broad head is streaked and speckled with dark markings, and its bushy tail is banded with stripes and a dark tip. These markings tend to appear darker during the summer.

5. Its fur blends with its habitat, which conceals it from predators.

Pallas's cats live in areas ranging from Pakistan and northern India to central China, Mongolia, and southern Russia. According to Wild Cats of the World, by Luke Hunter, its body isn’t adapted for snow, so it sticks to cold, arid habitats—particularly grassy or rocky areas, which help conceal it from predators—at elevations of around 1500 to nearly 17,000 feet. The stocky cat isn’t a fast runner, so when it senses danger, it freezes and crouches flat and motionless on the ground, and its fur helps it blend in with its surroundings.

6. Pallas's cats aren't fat—they're just furry.

Pallas's cats typically weigh less than 12 pounds, and they’re usually only 2 feet or less in body length—meaning they’re not that much larger than an ordinary house cat. Yet their dense coat of fur makes them appear much larger.

7. Their pupils are round instead of vertical.

Pallas's cats do share one feature in common with larger wildcats, like lions and tigers: their eyes. Their pupils are round, whereas a house cat's pupils are vertical and slit-shaped. Wondering why some cats have round pupils while others have vertical ones? A 2015 study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that animals’ pupil shapes might indicate their role in the predator/prey food chain. They analyzed 214 species of land animals (including cats), and noted that species with vertical pupils tended to be ambush predators that were active during both day and night. In contrast, species with vertical pupils were often “active foragers,” meaning they chase their prey. Also, predators that are closer to the ground, like house cats, were prone to vertical pupils, whereas larger wildcats had round ones. Pallas’s cats are small, and they are primarily ambush hunters, so the jury’s still out on whether the study's findings hold true for all creatures.

8. They subsist mostly on pika.

A Pallas's cat sticks its tongue out
iStock.com/Nikolai Vakhrushev

Pallas's cats are ambush hunters and spend much of their time hunting pika, a small mammal, and other critters like gerbils, voles, hares, ground squirrels, birds, and young marmots. Pika typically make up more than 50 percent of the cat's diet. 

9. They may be distantly related to the leopard cat.

Peter Pallas thought the animal was related to the Persian cat. (We think it looks like a Maine Coon and a Scottish Fold had a baby and weaned it on steroid milk.) However, experts have uncovered evidence that the wildcat’s nearest—yet still pretty distant—relative might be the leopard cat.

10. They's not social animals.

The Pallas's cat is notoriously elusive and spends much of its time hiding in caves, crevices, or abandoned burrows.

11. They don't seem to like each other much.

A pair of Pallas's cats size each other up
iStock.com/eli77

Pallas's cats may be adorably fluffy, but they aren’t the world’s sweetest, most cuddly creatures. In fact, they’re very aggressive. Case in point: In The Wild Cat Book, authors Fiona and Mel Sunquist recount an anecdote provided by Bill Swanson, the Cincinnati Zoo’s director of animal research. Zookeepers thought that a litter of newborn Pallas's cats were having difficulty breathing, but “when they listened closely, they realized that the noise they were hearing was the kittens growling and hissing at each other—before they had even opened their eyes!"

12. Their mating period is brief.

Pallas’s cats mate between December and March; the females typically give birth between the end of March and May, after a gestation period of 66 to 75 days. Pallas’s cats usually give birth to three or four kittens, but litters can sometimes have as many as eight kittens. Kittens become independent by four to five months, and when they reach nine to 10 months, they’re mature enough to reproduce. 

13. They're classified as "near-threatened."

It's estimated that Pallas's cats can live up to six years in the wild, but because of predators and other dangers, their lifespan is likely to be half this length. In captivity, they’ve been known to survive for nearly 12 years.

In 2002, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified the Pallas’s cat as “near-threatened,” and that status remains today. Many factors contribute to their low numbers, including farming, agricultural activities, mining, and poisoning campaigns aimed at reducing pika and marmot populations. They're also often killed in traps meant for wolves and foxes, or by domestic dogs. And despite international trading bans and legal protections in some countries, they're often hunted for their fur. (The cat's fat and organs are also used to make traditional medicines.) 

Scientists don't have enough data to estimate the Pallas’s cat's population size, but due to their scarcity and the many threats they face, experts believe that their numbers have dropped by 10 to 15 percent over the past decade or so. To better understand—and protect—the animal, an international team of conservationists recently secured a 12-mile swath of land in Sailyugemsky Nature Park, which lies in the Altai Mountains between Kazakhstan and Mongolia, as a sanctuary for the rare cat. There, they hope to monitor its population, study its habitat, and build a database of information detailing encounters with it. 

Additional Source:
Wild Cats of the World by Luke Hunter

Australian Island Wants Visitors to Stop Taking Wombat Selfies

iStock.com/LukeWaitPhotography
iStock.com/LukeWaitPhotography

Spending a day observing Australian wildlife from afar isn't enough for some tourists. On Maria Island, just off the east coast of Tasmania, many visitors can't resist snapping pictures with the local wombats—and the problem has gotten so out of hand that island officials are asking people to pledge to leave the cute marsupials out of their selfies.

As CNN Travel reports, the Maria Island Pledge has been posted on signs welcoming visitors to the national park. It implores them to vow to the island to "respect and protect the furred and feathered residents." It even makes specific mention of the wombat selfie trend, with one passage reading:

"Wombats, when you trundle past me I pledge I will not chase you with my selfie stick, or get too close to your babies. I will not surround you, or try and pick you up. I will make sure I don’t leave rubbish or food from my morning tea. I pledge to let you stay wild."

The pledge isn't a binding contract guests have to sign. Rather, park officials hope that seeing these signs when they arrive will be enough to remind visitors that their presence has an impact on the resident wildlife and to be respectful of their surroundings.

The adorable, cube-pooping wombats at Maria Island are wild animals that aren't accustomed to posing for pictures, and should therefore be left alone—though in other parts of Australia, conservationists encourage tourists to take wildlife selfies. Rottnest Island off the country's west coast is home to 10,000 quokkas (another photogenic marsupial), and the quokka selfies taken there help raise awareness of their vulnerable status.

[h/t CNN Travel]

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