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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Feb 7, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugIts blood is used in witchcraft. You will die if one flies over your head. It is a bad omen. It is really a ghost, not a bird.

All of this is superstition – but throughout history, the barn owl has had a spooky reputation.

Its white face and its fixed black eyes staring at you can be intimidating.

Because they often nest in abandoned buildings, I can only imagine the scary situation of finding oneself face-to-face in the dark with a barn owl.

People’s imaginations have run full-speed, fueled by fear and misconception.

Let’s find out a few things about the barn owl. It is a beautiful and striking creature.

It does not have ear tufts, as many owls do, and it has sharp black eyes. The owl cannot move its eyes; it must turn its head to see to the sides or back.

Photos courtesy of Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates

Photos: Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates

It is an owl that does not “hoot.” Rather, the sound it makes is more like a hiss or a shriek. It also clicks its beak loudly when disturbed or nervous.

I once had an interesting adventure: I was walking my dog at night when I heard a clicking sound close by. I thought for a moment it was the sound of a sprinkler going on, when a white bird flew just over my head from the thick conifer it was perched on. A barn owl! It was clicking its beak to tell me to stay away. As I am alive and well, you can drop the superstition right away.

When you see them in flight, the underbelly is quite white, and the male is whiter than the female. The rest of the plumage is a mixture of dark brown, light brown and some yellow.

As you can see, it is a  beautiful bird. The plumage is thick, and it is a good-sized bird (from 12 to 15 inches tall), but it is not heavy. It weight only about a pound. Most of its heft is feathers. The wing span is from 39 to 49 inches.

How do they hunt? Their plumage consists of a lot of down feathers that hide the sound of their flight, so their prey (and you) cannot hear them coming. They catch their prey off guard, scooping it up with sharp talons. They catch mice, squirrels, reptiles and small birds, swallowing them whole.

Barn owls have two stomachs, one for the food they are going to process and another for the food they are going to digest. The digestive juices separate the nutritious food from the stuff they cannot digest, such as bone, fur and nails. The meat goes down into the second stomach, but the stuff they cannot digest gets squeezed into an owl pellet inside the first stomach. The owl spits out the owl pellet and the process starts all over again.

Owl pellets are interesting. When you open one, you can see from the bones and fur what types of animals the owl has been eating. It always makes a good science project for kids and adults.

There is something special about the barn owl and its hunting abilities. This is the only animal in the entire animal kingdom that can catch its prey by sound alone. Experiments have been done in a lab in total darkness where the situation could be monitored.

hopi020413aOwls usually hunt by night. Many owls have ears placed in slightly different positions on each side of their head. They determine which direction the prey is, based upon the time required for the sound to reach each ear. The intensity of the sound tells them the proximity of their prey. If the sound is coming from above, it will seem louder to the ear with the higher opening, so the owl can find its prey easily. If the sound is loud in both ears, the owl knows the prey is right in front of it.

This is an adaptation you will find in many owls, but other types are still not as accurate as the barn owl. The facial dish (the white face) acts as a reflector to channel sounds to its ears, and that helps even more with the barn owl’s hunting ability.

Love story? The barn owl mates for life, but they have a short life span and mate only once or twice. (Both good news and bad news.)

What and where is the nest? They use cavities – in trees and even in abandoned buildings. This is where the barn owl’s name comes from. An old barn was the perfect place for them, because they do not build a nest. They look for a dark and quiet place.

They lay five to seven eggs, with one laid every four to six days. The female incubates the eggs right away, starting when the first egg is laid. That means the eggs will hatch in the same order as they were laid. The first babies will be stronger and larger than the younger ones, so the older ones have a better chance for survival.

The male does most of the hunting and feeding. Mom stays with the babies. The eggs are incubated for 29 to 34 days.

owl020413bThe babies are comical to see when they become “toddlers.” As babies, they are just one big puff of down, fluffy all over. As they grow a bit, they start to develop feathers on their wings and tail and the down recedes – but the down stays thick on top of their head for the longest time. This makes them look like they are wearing a white hat made of down.

Many factors have contributed to the decline of the species, and the change of land use is only one of them. Not so much foraging habitat is left, and there aren’t too many barns around Santa Clarita these days.

If you want a close look at a barn owl, come to the animal show on Saturdays at 1 p.m. at Placerita Canyon Nature Center. There you will meet Catori and learn how she came to the center.

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.

 

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