Albertans are crazy about Owls! These distinctive birds are fascinating to birders and non-birders alike, but what makes an Owl stand out from other birds?
Owls are known to have an acute sense of hearing aided by numerous adaptations. Some owls have ears that are asymmetrically placed on their heads. This helps the owl to pinpoint the location of sounds in multiple dimensions to quickly and accurately triangulate their prey’s position. Owls also have a distinctly shaped face with a disk-like structure of feathers surrounding the bill and eyes. An owl can alter the shape of this disk to funnel sound towards the ears, amplifying its hearing.
Similarly, to humans, owls have forward facing-eyes and binocular vision. However, owls have large tube shaped eyes that provide better depth perception. Owls cannot turn their eyes because they are immobilized in bony eye sockets. Instead, owls rotate their heads up to 270 degrees for a wide field of vision.
Owls, like other raptors, have robust, hooked beaks for tearing flesh and strong feet and sharp, curved talons for grasping and carrying their prey. Many owls have feathered feet to help with insulation and to protect from minor mites or scratches of captured prey. These feathers can also help the birds detect when prey is within their grasp. Owls also have unique toes, as the outermost forward toe is able to rotate to face the back and hold prey more efficiently.
Many owls are nocturnal (active at night) or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk), and have evolved hearing and vision adaptations to hunt more efficiently in low light conditions. How often an owl is seen in the day is dependent on many factors including habitat, food supplies, and seasonal amounts of daylight and darkness.
Owls are carnivorous, with their diet composed of a wide range of animals such as insects, fish, birds, rodents and other small to medium sized mammals. Some owls even hunt other owls! For example, the Great Horned owl is the top predator of the Barred Owl.
After eating, owls regurgitate hard pellets containing compressed indigestible materials that will not pass through their digestive track such as bones, fur, feathers, and teeth. These pellets can be studied by Ornithologists to learn more about an owl’s diet.
Owls are excellent hunters because of their acute senses and numerous adaptations. Besides their facial disk, asymmetrical ears and binocular vision, owls also have specialized feathers that help to muffle sound as they fly, allowing them to fly virtually silent.
Many people are familiar with the classic “hoot” call made by owls, but owls have a wide range of vocal sounds that people are less familiar with. These include hissing, screeches, whistles, screams, purrs and bill clacks, with each sound communicating a different message.
Where to Find Owls:
Owls are found around the world, and are common all over Alberta. There are 11 species of owls in Alberta that vary greatly in colour, shape, and size. For example, the Northern Pygmy Owl is 16 cm long compared to it’s relative the Great Gray Owl, which is 75 cm long! You can find more information in EALT's Alberta Owls brochure.
Most owl species prefer to live in forests and woodlands but owls can also be found in open regions such as deserts, tundra and grasslands, as well as dense regions of marshes and bogs. Some owls have even adapted to living in suburban and urban areas, creating more chances for them to be observed by interested residents.
How You Can Help Owls:
- Build a Saw-whet Owl nest box
- Avoid the use of poison to control rodents, as owls (or other natural predators) may also become poisoned after eating poisoned prey
- Plant trees to create owl habitat
- Sponsor a Great Horned Owl to help EALT protect important owl habitat
- Support owl habitat conservation through the Edmonton and Area Land Trust by volunteering or donating