Some of Them Nest in Cacti, And Other Fun Facts About Owls

In the month of February, you may hear a lot about “Superb Owls”. They are pretty superb, just as exciting as a halftime show, really. There are more than 200 species of owl, ranging in size from five to 28 inches tall, with wing spans between one and six-and-a-half feet. They can also live just about anywhere, from tundra to woodland and rainforests. They may be missing from Antarctica, but living on all the other continents is fairly superb, too. Read on to learn some interesting facts about these birds.

They’ve Been Around for a Long Time

Snowy owl in flight during the day

Owls first appeared on the fossil record about 60 million years ago. Humans have long included them in our art and folklore, too. An 18-inch owl carved into a French cave dates back more than 30,000 years. Owls are also found in the myths of many cultures. Among the most notable is the little owl that often accompanied Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war. Her owl was said to reveal truths to her and was a symbol that reflected the goddess’ wisdom. By extension, Athens, for which Athena was patron, chose the owl as their symbol.

No Eye Rolling From Them

Owl eyes and tilted head

Owls can see pretty well, with large, forward-facing tube-shaped eyes in the front of their heads. This gives them binocular vision, which allows for better depth perception and distance judgment when preparing for an attack. However, there is a catch: They can’t rotate their eyes because they don’t have eyeballs, and those tube-shaped eyes can’t move within their sockets.

They Have Very Flexible Necks

Owl rotating its head

The fact that owls can’t move their eyes is balanced out by the weird thing they can do with their necks: Rotating their heads 270 degrees. This is possible due to a higher number of neck vertebrae: 14 to humans’ seven. Their blood vessels are also less apt to be damaged due to the location of their arteries: in tubes within hollow bones, cushioned by air sacs. The carotid arteries are near the center of the rotation in front of the spine, as well, which requires them to twist less.

They Can Eat A LOT of Mice

Owl with mouse in mouth

Wouldn’t it be great if your snacking could be helpful to others? Well, owls’ dietary habits are. They eat a lot of prey that can damage crops, so farmers appreciate their snacking. Some agricultural producers even try to attract barn owls. This may be a good idea because, according to some estimates, a family of five barn owls can eat about 1,000 mice in one nesting season. They’ll also eat voles, gophers, and rats.

They Fly Silently

Owl in flight hunting at night

One of the reasons owls are such adept predators is that their bodies are made to fly silently. Comb-like feathers break up the air up front, which reduces the noise of the airwaves, while their soft down further muffles the noise. Their broad wingspans are also much larger than their bodies, which allows them to glide longer with little flapping.

They Can’t Digest Bone and Have a Unique Way of Addressing That

Owl making funny face

When something we eat doesn’t agree with us, we generally have to wait out the discomfort. When owls eat something they can’t digest, it comes out in pellet form. Their digestive systems can’t handle fur and bones, which can be a problem when you eat prey whole. Their body is equipped to handle this, though. Their gizzard sorts what can be digested from what can’t, and what can’t comes back the way it came, regurgitated as a pellet.

The Females Are Bigger Than the Males

Owl mother at nest with young

There’s a bit of a stereotype about smaller, weaker women. That’s definitely not the case with owls because in most species, the female is actually bigger. It’s unclear why this is, but there are some theories. One is that the differing sizes means pairs don’t have to compete with each other for food, with the female going after somewhat larger prey than the male. Another is that being larger protects the female from aggressive males, and they may have chosen to mate with smaller males that they could dominate into being the food provider needed during nesting. A third theory is that the females are larger to better protect their nests, where they’ll spend more time than the males, while the males will be able to bring a larger amount of small prey if they’re smaller and swift.

One of Them Barks

Side profile of barking owl

It’s the middle of the night and one of your neighbor’s dogs is barking again… or could it actually be an owl? It could! Barking owls – found in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and parts of Indonesia – make noises resembling a “woof woof”. Sometimes you can even enjoy dueling woofs when a male and female call to each other. They aren’t one trick ponies, though. They can also scream like humans. So if there’s one nearby, you may be really confused about what’s going on at your neighbor’s house.

One Species Nests in Cacti

Owl in cactus

When you think of a good place to call home, a prickly spot would totally be at the top of your list, right? Well, it is for one species of owl that lives in the southwestern U.S. and portions of Mexico. The elf owl – the smallest species, at five inches tall with a nine-inch wingspan – often nests in saguaro cacti. There, they can be safer from predators including other owls, snakes, coyotes, and bobcats. Meanwhile, the elf owl’s prey includes insects, scorpions, and spiders.

Some of Them Head Underground

Burrowing owl peeking out from burrow

One species may prefer to hang out in cacti, but they’re not the only ones with interesting tastes. The burrowing owl, as reflected in its name, nests in burrows dug by themselves or by mammals like prairie dogs. To further buck the trends, they are also diurnal, not nocturnal, and like to perch on the ground. They’re found in both North and South America, in deserts, plains, and fields.

Another interesting fact about these birds is that they will store extra food during incubation. Sometimes this can get a little extreme, like they’ve just hit up Costco before a snowstorm. An example: One cache seen in 1997 had more than 200 rodents.

So what can you do to help all these owls thrive? You can start with your property: Avoid using rodenticides, reduce light pollution, keep your cats inside so they don’t eat the prey owls prefer, and plant native species.

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