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How Owls Locate Prey Under the Snow

1-26-16  barred owl imprint  067An owl’s range of audible sounds is not unlike that of humans, but an owl’s hearing is much more acute at certain frequencies, enabling it to hear even the slightest movement of their prey under two feet of snow. When a noise is heard, the owl is able to tell its direction because of the minute time difference in which the sound is perceived in the left and right ear. If the sound is to the left of the owl, the left ear hears it before the right ear. The owl turns its head so the sound arrives at both ears simultaneously, at which point it knows its prey is right in front of it. Owls can detect a left/right time difference of about 0.00003 seconds.

Once an owl has determined the direction of its next victim, it flies towards it, keeping its head in line with the direction of the last sound the prey made. If the prey moves, the owl makes corrections mid-flight. When about two feet from the prey, the owl brings its feet forward and spread its talons, and just before striking, thrusts its legs out in front of its face and often close its eyes before the kill. (Photo: barred owl wings and feet imprints; inset: barred owl ear opening.)

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6 responses

  1. Perry

    The nictitating membrane, or inner eyelid, of an owl is almost completely transparent – the leading edge is usually black. I’ve seen several photographs of Great Horned Owls in the moments before striking prey where this black stripe is visible; the bird was caught on film in mid-blink. Even with this membrane closed, an owl is still able to see and its eyes are perfectly protected, even if they are hit with skunk spray.

    January 28, 2016 at 9:05 am

  2. Ellen Blanchard

    What a coincidence…I’ve just finished reading “BIRD SENSE” by Tom Birkhead.
    He goes into amazing detail about Owl hearing and all the other bird senses.
    Thanks

    January 28, 2016 at 1:52 pm

  3. I’ve seen prints like this in our fields – a stop-action glimpse of the food chain in progress.

    January 28, 2016 at 2:17 pm

  4. Chas Carner

    If I understand correctly, reliance on sound for targeting and navigation occurs primarily while an owl flies with the wind, yes? Much like the “serene stillness and silence” a hot-air balloonist experiences while drifting with the breeze, avoiding a headwind’s resistance and audible buffeting. Is this correct?

    January 29, 2016 at 8:35 am

    • I honestly don’t know, Chas, but will try to confirm this for you. Makes sense to me!

      January 29, 2016 at 9:11 am

    • Hi Chas,
      I consulted a local well-respected ornithology professor, Dr. George Clark, who replied to your question, “I’ve not heard or read of owls selecting tail winds as an aid when hunting from the air. I’d be interested to know whether there is evidence for an association between wind direction and that of foraging owls in flight.” Do let me know if you find anything out about this!

      January 31, 2016 at 5:33 pm

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