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. 

Fish Tube: How the 'Salmon Cannon' Works and Why It's Important

PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images
PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve been on the internet at any point in the past week, you’ve certainly come across footage of wildlife conservationists stuffing salmon into a giant plastic tube and shuttling them over obstacles. It’s so bizarre—even by the already loose standards of the web—that it briefly ignited discussions over fish welfare, its purpose, and the seeming desire of people to be similarly transported through a pneumatic tunnel into a new life.

Naturally, the “salmon cannon” has a mission beyond amusing the internet. The system was created by Whooshh Innovations, a company that essentially adopted the same kind of transportation system featuring pressurized tubing that's used in banking. Initially, the system was intended to transport fruit over long distances without bruising. At some point, engineers figured they could do the same for fish.

The fish payload is secured at the entrance of the tube—acceptable species can weigh up to 34 pounds—and moves through a smooth, soft plastic tube that conforms to their body shape. Air pressure behind them keeps them moving. The fish are jettisoned between 16 and 26 feet per second to a new location, where they emerge relatively unscathed. Because there’s no need for a water column, the tubing can cover most terrain at virtually any height.

The tubing solution is a human answer to a human problem: dams. With fish largely confined to still bodies of water thanks to dams and facing obstacles swimming upstream to migrate and spawn, fish need some kind of assistance. In the past, “fish ladders” have helped fish move upstream by providing ascending steps they can flop on, but not all fish can navigate such terrain. Another system, trapping and hauling fish like cargo, results in disoriented fish who can even forget how to swim. The Whooshh system, which has been in used in Washington state for at least five years, allows for expedient fish export with an injury rate as little as 3 percent, although study results have varied.

The video features manual insertion of the fish. In the wild, Whooshh counts on fish making semi-voluntary entries into the tubing. Once they swim into an enclosure, they’re curious enough about the tube to go inside.

If all goes well, the system could help salmon be reintroduced to the Upper Columbia River in Washington, where the population has been depleted by dams. Testing of the device there is awaiting approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

Virginia Zoo Is Auctioning Off the Chance to Name Its New Red Panda Triplets

bbossom/iStock via Getty Images
bbossom/iStock via Getty Images

The red panda population at the Virginia Zoo grew significantly earlier this summer, The Virginian-Pilot reports. On June 18, mother Masu and father Timur welcomed a brood of triplets into the world, bringing their total number of offspring up to five. The three red panda babies are currently without names, but the zoo is giving a few lucky bidders the chance to change that.

Red pandas are endangered, with fewer than 10,000 of them living in their natural habitat in the Eastern Himalayas. Red panda breeding programs, like the one at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, are a way for conservationists to rebuild the species's dwindling numbers.

In 2017, Masu relocated to Virginia from the Denver Zoo as a juvenile. Zookeepers paired her with a male red panda there named Timur, and in June 2018, she delivered twin cubs named Adam and Freddie. Red pandas typically breed in the spring and summer months and usually have just two babies at a time. But when Masu gave birth again this past June, she had three tiny cubs.

The three new red panda babies each weighed about 5 ounces when they were born and weigh roughly a pound today. Masu has been moved to a private, climate-controlled den to care for her young and will be returned to her original exhibit with her cubs sometime this fall.

By the time they make their debut, the youngest red pandas at the Virginia Zoo will have names, chosen not by the zoo, but by members of the public. Starting yesterday, August 19, and ending August 30, the zoo is holding an online auction for the naming rights of each of the three red panda cubs. As of press time, the honor of naming the two boy red pandas has already been sold for $2500 each, and the current bid for the girl stands at $1000. All the money that's raised will be donated to the Zoo’s conservation partner, the Red Panda Network.

Perhaps due to the results of previous public naming contests, the Zoo did lay out a few stipulations for the winning bidders. It won't accept any repeat names of red pandas that have lived there in the past. Additionally, "any racial, religious or ethnic slurs, explicit language, obscene content, reference to alcohol, drugs or other illicit substances or otherwise unlawful, inappropriate, objectionable, or offensive content" will be rejected. All name submissions from the winners are due to the zoo by September 9.

[h/t The Virginian-Pilot]

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