The Owl Comes Into Its Own

Owls date back 60 million years or longer, and they’re found in nearly every kind of habitat: tropical, tundra, desert, even in Central Park. There are some 229 species known, and the list continues to grow. Recently in the summer of 2012, two new species of hawk owl were discovered in the Philippines. Earlier this month researchers reported on a new species of screech-like owl from the island of Lombok, Indonesia.

The western world is and has been fascinated with owls throughout time, probably dating back to the ancient Greeks and their association of owls with goddess, Athena. “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.”

Owls are frequently a part of children's books, fairy tales and even movies in the modern world such as in Harry Potter. Yet despite this love and fascination with these magnificent birds, it is only as of late that scientists and researchers have begun to figure out some of the answers to the questions of what sets owls apart from other avian species.

Researcher, David Johnson has been working with researchers in 65 countries through the Global Owl Project to compile a vast database and understanding of all the world’s owls. They are updating descriptions, natural history, genetics, vocalizations, rough population estimates, and myths and legends all associated with the elusive owl. Some of their interesting findings are mentioned below.

For example, the researchers have discovered that young barn owls can be impressively generous toward one another, regularly sharing portions of their food to their smaller, hungrier siblings. This display of altruism is thought to be rare among nonhuman animals, and even among some humans too.

They have 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, in a language that researchers are now trying to decipher. According to Alexandre Roulin of the University of Lausanne, “They talk all night long and make a huge noise."

Jonathan Slaght released this Blakiston's fish owl near the Sha-Mi River in Russia following capture in 2008. The same owl was struck by a vehicle and killed in 2012. 

Aeronautical engineers are studying owls for clues to better wing designs because many owl species are renowned for their ability to fly almost completely silently, so as to not warn their prey of their approach. At a meeting of the American Physical Society last fall, researchers from Cambridge University after studying the owls have proposed that well-placed perforations in an airplane wing could have a similar smoothing effect on turbulence, leading to quieter and more fuel efficient flights.

Although owls are associated as being mainly night creatures, they have also been found to hunt during dusk, dawn and even during the day. They have also been long thought to be closely related to birds of prey like hawks and eagles, because of superficial resemblance. But the similarities of beak or talon turn out to be the result of evolutionary fine tuning on optimal meat-eating equipment. Recent genetic analysis links the owls to other nocturnal birds, like the nightjars and not the eagles and hawks.

Their phenomenal hearing is also subject to much interest and research. Species like the barn, barred, screech and horned have some of the keenest auditory systems known. They are able to hear potential prey stirring deep under leaves, snow or grass and can even identify the rodent species and it's size based on sound alone.

Because of the collaboration of these scientists from around the world on these beautiful, highly efficient and mysterious owls, we will be able to begin to understand more of their fascinating ways - perhaps also in a way to benefit our fellow humans.


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