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By Sarah Brewer Thompson
| Thursday, Dec 19, 2013

sarahbrewerthompson_mugIt is hard to live out in the country like we do and not be witness to one of nature’s most adapted hunters: the small and often unassuming barn owl (Tyto alba).

Barn owls are some of the most visually striking birds in the area with their signature bright white, heart-shaped face, white underbody and golden-grey mottled back and wing feathers.

Although they are physically beautiful birds, graceful and fascinating to watch, the shape and form of every part of their finely tuned bodies are specially adapted for hunting and survival. They are truly one of nature’s most exquisitely evolved hunters.

The barn owl is quite a bit smaller than its better known cousin, the great horned owl, with an average length of 10 to 20 inches, an average weight of 6.5 to 28 ounces, and a wingspan of 30 to 43 inches. Because of their smaller size, they can fall prey to larger raptors such as bigger owls or hawks.

Scooter, the Vasquez Rocks barn owl | Photos by Sarah Brewer Thompson

Scooter, the Vasquez Rocks barn owl | Photos by Sarah Brewer Thompson

Although their nocturnal behavior makes seeing them more difficult, you can tell if you have a barn owl by the sounds you hear. Interestingly, they do not “hoot.” Barn owls make a few different sounds, including clicking with their beak, hissing (similar to the hissing of a tea kettle), and a screech. If you hear any of these noises, chances are, you are lucky enough to have a barn owl in your midst.

Probably the most distinguishing feature of the barn owl, and one its their greatest adaptations, is its white, heart-shaped face, with a crest of feathers running from forehead to beak. These feathers work as a specialized sound reflector, working with the owls’ offset ears, allowing them to hunt in complete darkness. They are one of the only known animal species to be able to do this. If you were able to look closely at the ear openings on the owl’s head, you would notice that one is higher than the other. Having them offset in this way allows for the bird to pinpoint its target by sound with incredible accuracy.

This is why they are highly effective “mousers,” and why it is a gift if you have one living near your home. No poisons, no traps, just good, old-fashioned, natural pest control. And don’t worry – they are not known to come after pets (cats or small dogs) as some of their larger owl cousins can do.

Another interesting adaptation is the wide range of motion of the owls’ necks. Because their eyes are stationary in their skulls (meaning they cannot move freely like ours can), they need to be able to move their heads in a variety of directions in order to see the world around them. In order to have this mobility, the owls have 14 neck vertebrae (quite impressive when compared to our seven), and although they cannot completely turn their heads 360 degrees, they can easily see what is behind them without moving their bodies.

Further to ensure their stealth while hunting, the owls have soft, serrated or “fringed” feathers, which allow nearly totally silent flight. Most raptors’ feathers have more of a compact, stiff edge (think of a hawk feather, if you have ever seen one up close), while the owl feather is much softer and broken up at the edge, eliminating that “whoosh” sound when it moves through the air.

Barn owls use their incredible hunting capabilities to hunt at night, mainly going after small rodents. They will grab the animal with their sharp talons and swallow the animal whole.

barnowl_scooter1Because they can easily fall pretty to larger mammals or birds, they have to be relatively fast eaters. They will consume the softer, easily digestible materials (organs, muscle, etc.) and cough up or “cast” a pellet with the indigestible bits (hair and bone). If you find these “owl pellets” around your house, then you are lucky enough have an owl in the area.

Barn owl pellets are smaller and usually less messy than pellets from larger birds such as great horned owls, which usually have larger, messier pellets, with bones from larger rodents such as rats and gophers.

It can be an excellent learning activity for children to dissect these pellets – although it is important that they use caution and that the pellets are disinfected before use. It is remarkable to see what kids (and adults) can learn by dissecting them.

Barn owls are found all over the planet, with the exception of extreme desert and polar regions. They are commonly observed in Santa Clarita where they nest in tall trees, barns, garages and workshops – wherever they can find a safe place to make their nests.

The habit of building nests in these structures gave the owls their name, but because they often dwell in these structures or in tall, old trees, they are prone to unintentional habitat destruction by humans … which is where our own Vasquez Rocks barn owl, Scooter, comes in.

Scooter lives at Vasquez Rocks and is an awesome animal that is used for demonstrations and classes. Like the other birds of prey that have to live in captivity, she has a sad history and is non-releasable, meaning she will live the rest of her years in captivity, in the loving care of the staff at Vasquez Rocks Park.

Scooter was only a few days old when the tree her nest was in was cut down, bringing the nest and two babies down with it. This happened because the property owners had not checked to see if the nest was active before cutting down the old tree.

barnowl2Sadly, her tiny sibling did not survive, but Scooter was taken to stay with Los Angeles County’s incredible animal rehabilitator, David Stives. She was so small that she could not yet walk, but scooted around, earning her name, Scooter. She enjoyed watching television, and especially enjoyed “Little House on the Prairie.”

When she was strong and healthy at age 1, she came to live at Vasquez Rocks. Now she is 14 years old. Scooter serves as a valuable teaching aid for people of all ages – a living reminder that humans are indeed the greatest threat to birds of prey.\

Although Scooter is 100-percent physically healthy, she missed a vital stage in her development during the first year when her parents would have taught her how to hunt. Because of this, she would not survive long out in the wild, where only the strong survive.

She is healthy and, as far as we know, content with where she lives, but it is always sad to see a wild animal, especially one so majestic and built to hunt, living in captivity. All we can do from now on is be advocates for the protection of these birds. It is really quite as simple as checking a tree or building before altering it, or encouraging our children to respect our animals and not do things like shoot at them with BB guns.

It is our responsibility to respect and help protect them, and in turn, they will help us.

Feel free to come see Scooter and the other wonderful animals at Vasquez Rocks. And the next time you  hear a rustle high up in the tree, it could be one of nature’s most beautifully adapted creatures.

 

Sarah Brewer Thompson was born and raised in Agua Dulce, where she learned to love and appreciate nature and history. She is a master’s student at California State University, Northridge, and a docent at Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park. Her areas of interest are local history, archaeology and animal studies.

 

barnowl1

 

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