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OWLS - AMAZING ADAPTATIONS ! ! !
Owls have many unique adaptations, which allow them to be efficient, successful and expert hunters of the night. However, all owls can see during the day. A few species, like the Snowy Owl and the Short-eared owl even hunt during the day or are crepuscular, hunting mostly at dusk and dawn. Owls have enormous eyes to admit more light and have excellent vision, but unlike hawks, owl's ears are even more keen and are unevenly placed or "asymmetrically" located just behind their facial disk. One ear is positioned slightly higher and shaped differently than the other, allowing the owl to "triangulate" and judge the exact direction, distance and level of the sound of their prey. Their unique facial disk forms a shallow dish (similar to a satellite dish) of stiff feathers which bend forward to collect sound, funneling it into very large ear openings. Owls can be seen rotating and bobbing their heads while perched on a branch, as they pinpoint and seek out their target! In addition, without moving any other part of their body, owls can rotate their head 270 degrees! With 14 neck vertebrae (humans only have 7), owls can look over their right shoulder, continue turning until their head is backwards, and continue even further, until they are looking over their left shoulder!
Owls can close their eyes or blink with an upper and lower eye lid, but they also possess a third "inner" eyelid called a nictitating membrane. This eyelid slides quickly across the eye from the inner corner and back. However, owls can independently keep one or both lids closed. The nictitating membrane is transparent, allowing them to see through it while closed and protects their eyes from wind, dust, rain and injuries they might receive from prey when making a kill.
Owls have strong hooked beaks for breaking bones and tearing meat, but since owls can't chew their food, and usually swallow prey whole, they regurgitate an "owl pellet" several hours after eating. These pellets contain indigestible items e.g. teeth, bones, fur, feathers, and exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans. Biologists and scientists dissect and study these pellets to learn more about what and how much owls eat and where they hunt.
Like most flighted birds, owls skeletons are amazingly light, being made up of mostly hollow bones. A large Great-Horned Owl weighs just 3 to 4 lbs. Feathers on owls are much softer than hawk and songbird feathers. The leading edges of owls flight feathers are serrated with very soft structures, that break up the airflow over the wing, allowing them to achieve silent flight. This adaptation allows owls to use their excellent hearing to locate prey and also allows them to make a sneak attack on unsuspecting prey. In addition, dense down feathers insulate and keep owls warm on the coldest of winter nights.
Finally, they possess powerful, clawed feet - each toe ending in a razor-sharp, curved talon. These winged predators are well-equipped with everything they need to survive in the wild. Their built-in defense mechanisms and innate survival skills to succeed as a species is only challenged by man - in our carelessness with the environment, as we directly and indirectly destroy critical habitat, alter and eliminate entire ecosystems and damage food chains. It is our moral responsibility, as inhabitants sharing this planet with wild creatures, to learn to co-exist with all living things and strive to respect, preserve and protect our natural world.
Our Barn Owl came to us in May of 1996 and is one of four endangered species here at "BACK TO THE WILD". She was born in captivity at the Toledo Zoo and was 6 years old when she arrived. She is now almost 13 years old! Barn Owls are known as the long-legged, knock-kneed, monkey-faced owl, but despite that description, they are unbelievably beautiful! They are one of only two owls in Ohio that have brown eyes instead of yellow as in other native species. They appear white underneath which gives them a ghostly appearance, as they go out into the night with totally silent flight. Their voice resembles a human scream and they also deliver a raspy hiss.
Barn Owls are endangered in Ohio, due to loss of habitat. They need undisturbed, unmowed grassy fields that support a large population of meadow voles, which make up over 90% of its diet. The Division of Wildlife has been successful in restoring Barn Owl populations to several areas in Ohio, through careful management programs, by protecting and restoring habitat and providing nesting boxes in barns and silos. Barn Owls are still on the Endangered Species List and need continued monitoring and protection
Our Barred Owl has been here at the center since April of 1993. A victim of someone's target practice, she was found shot and her wing was shattered and useless. Her cage here at the center, along with the other disabled raptors, is equipped with a ramp to allow her to get to high perches and into a nest box. It is so important for these magnificent, wild animals, who are now disabled, to have the benefit of a well-designed enclosure. Though we can never duplicate the wild, we make every effort to provide as comfortable and safe an environment as possible.
Barred Owls have deep, dark mysterious eyes that seem to reflect the very soul of the wilderness. No one can help but be in awe of their beauty. They occupy lowland, wet woods and swamps, consuming amphibians, small snakes and rodents. They are the most vocal of Ohio's owls, with calls consisting of cackles, laughs, woops and catlike yells. Sometimes it can sound like a barking dog.
Our Barred Owl is a favorite at school programs as well as at gatherings of adults of all ages. She stirs up much conversation that ends up changing many people's perceptions of wild animals, in a positive way. Throughout our programs, using live animals as educational tools, we constantly remind the audience that these wonderful, wild creatures are not pets and should never be thought of as such.
If ever I have been challenged by a wild animal, it is most definitely our program Great-horned Owl! Even though she has resided here at the center since 1993, she has made up her mind that she would rule here as she had "ruled the night" when she was free in the wild! She is proof positive that you cannot make a so-called "pet" out of a wild animal! She will tolerate sitting on my gloved hand at school assemblies and other gatherings - but she makes sure the audience understands she is a wild animal! In fact, my Kevlar-lined, bulletproof leather gloves are full of hundreds of punctures, some matching the ones in my hand!
Great-horned Owls are powerful, fierce, spectacular creatures who will take whatever is available for food - this includes mice, of course, birds (even other owls), snakes, turtles, rabbits, squirrels, weasels, skunks and domestic cats. They are referred to as the Winged Tiger or Winged Wolverine of our forests and open farmland. Great-horned Owls are the first birds to nest in Ohio and may be on eggs as early as late January. Since owls do not make their own nests, they usually use an old hawk or crow nest or a cavity of a large tree. They are great defenders of their nest, willing to attack humans who venture to close. These owls are usually not challenged even by Eagles.
There is a woods directly connected to this rehab center and our Great-horned Owl converses nightly with a pair in the woods. It breaks my heart a little to not be able to let her go. She is non-flighted, due to a collision with a pick-up truck. This owl makes sure I don't forget to keep a healthy respect for all wild animals!
Our two little Eastern Screech Owls really make a hit with their great, big attitude! They are all of 10" high, but have quite an inflated ego. They are known as the "feathered wildcat" and live up to their nickname! Screech Owls occur in 3 color phases - gray, red and brown. Many of us have walked right past a screech owl during the day, as we passed beneath a tree on a nature walk, or even in a tree in a city park or along a sidewalk in town. They are masters of camouflage - able to blend in with the bark of a tree, erecting their ear tufts to break up their outline, elongating themselves, pulling their feathers tight to their body, and leaning - looking every bit like a broken stub of a branch on a tree!
Our gray phase screech has been here at the center since November of 1992. Since then, she has not only assisted me in hundreds of programs, but has acted as a surrogate parent, raising over 120 orphaned Screech Owls! She is worth her weight in gold, and more (since she weighs less than 7 ozs.)! It is the best thing for these orphans to be fed by and to interact with their own species, eliminating human contact and preventing "imprinting" which would ruin their chances for survival in the wild. Our Red-phase Screech Owl tolerates those babies, but doesn't lift a feather to help feed them. But that's okay, he's earning his keep by doing his "owl call" during programs. What a thrill to hear! When children visiting the center begin hooting at the Screech Owls, they quickly learn that this species does not "hoot" at all. Its soft quavering whistle and whinny-like call has sent lots of humans fleeing from the dark! Screech Owls also chirp, scream and screech and do not sound owl-like at all. In just one spring night of feeding its young, a Screech Owl returns to its nest with food, over 60 to 75 times - each time with an insect, rodent or songbird in its talons - what a beneficial predator - benefiting man! What are we doing to benefit them?
The tiny little Saw-whet Owl is hard to believe. How could something so cute and small be such a voracious predator?! These little raptors steal your heart away - standing only 7" high and weighing less than 4 to 5 ozs! Ours arrived on Valentine's Day, 1997. When you are a wildlife rehabilitator, you do not have hours or schedules - except for the animals! A police officer knocked on my door at 5:00 a.m. to hand me a small cardboard box. Somehow, I knew it wasn't a Valentine's Day gift - but it was! I carefully opened the box expecting a small Screech Owl, which is one of our most often received patients. Instead, looking back at me with one eye, was an incredibly small owl - a tiny, little Saw-whet. The concerned officer had been traveling 65 mph on the Rt. 2 by-pass, near Huron, Ohio, when the owl struck his windshield and glanced off to the berm of the road. Thankfully, though too few do, this kind man searched for his victim, found him motionless in the grass and assumed it had died. Still, he placed it in his cruiser in a box and brought him to the center. By the time he arrived here, the little owl had come to but had serious head trauma and an injured eye filled with blood. It took a very long time for him to recover and he unfortunately was left blind in one eye. This would seriously hamper his ability to hunt successfully. To stay alive, he would have to spend the rest of his life here at the center. Not a very happy ending for a creature of the wild. But we will do what we can to give him the best we can offer.
These little owls are very secretive and are almost never discovered in their hiding places of tangles of vines or evergreens. Some migrate from the north each year in late fall and spend winters in Ohio. There are few records of them breeding in Ohio, most head back north and west of Ohio to nest there. They are living mousetraps, able to capture, kill and eat quite large mice, flying squirrels, bats and other small mammals and birds. Insects also make up a large part of their diet when on their nesting grounds. Believe it or not, there are two species of owls in the west even smaller than the Saw-whet, - the Elf Owl and the Pygmy Owl! Amazing!
Another visitor from the north. Every winter, Short-eared Owls can be found in open country, in certain areas in Ohio, roosting in grassy fields or cropland left in stubble. There are usually several in one location. These owls are crepuscular - meaning they are mostly active at dusk and dawn. Short-eared owls have a moth-like, floppy, irregular wing beat as they fly low over fields searching for voles. On their breeding grounds, they nest in depressions on the ground. Short-ears are about the size of a crow.
Our Short-ear arrived at the center in February of 2000, in terrible condition. She had three broken bones in one wing and two in the other. Both wings had to be pinned and she spent several weeks healing, where she became quite coordinated jumping around on her legs and even perching a few inches off the floor of the cage. Our hopes were destroyed when it was obvious one wing at least would not have enough range of motion to allow her good flight. She is a beautiful bird with unbelievably intense eyes. How much better it feels to be able to return a creature like this to the wild.
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This was last modified on April 17, 2009.