The Barn Owl
At this time of year dawn comes quite late, and if a clear, frosty morning is forecast, we might set the alarm slightly early and visit our local bird reserve here in Kent.
The reserve is beautiful in the morning light, the waders and wildfowl silhouetted on the frozen water, and if we are lucky we have the added bonus of spotting the resident barn owls. (Scroll to the bottom to see a short video that we took).
The barn owl is easy to spot with its light colouration as it hunts over the fields and reedbeds. It gives a beautiful display, often hovering above the ground, listening intently before pouncing on its unseen prey from a few meters height. These sustained views gave me some excellent reference for my bronze barn owl sculpture .
Barn owls (like most nocturnal and crepuscular owls) have acute hearing. They have large facial discs (giving the barn owl its distinctive heart shaped face), which are covered in rows of small feathers, with a layer of thicker, stiff feathers on the edge of the disc. It is suspected that the smaller, central feathers help to dampen the sound of the wind like the fluffy muffs which are found on microphones. The stiff feathers around the edge act rather like a cupped hand around our ears – to catch and amplify faint sounds. This ruff of feathers around the edge may be mobile and able to be controlled by the owl. There is a small flap of skin to the front of the ear which also directs sounds in the right direction.
The ears are asymmetrically placed on the face, each picking up sounds from a slightly different angle, thus helping the owl to pin pont the location of the prey.
Nocturnal owls also have more sensitive ears than diurnal birds. One comparison shows that a Barn Owl has 95000 neurons in its auditory area in comparison to 27000 in a crow.
All these factors mean that the barn owl is able to “see” its prey with its ears. Of course they also have good eyesight…. but that is for another blog!