I bet you remember this one… How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?
In this television commercial, an inquisitive boy asks Mr. Owl his question. When he does, Mr. Owl takes the Tootsie pop, licks it… “one, two-hoo, three…” and bites. He hands the pop-less stick back to the boy and announces, “Three.”
Seems wise Mr. Owl was a bit of a comedian. And a good thing for the boy, he had just eaten.
Owls are deadly accurate hunters. With eyes, ears, wings, talons, and beaks flawlessly adapted for hunting and killing, it’s little wonder that most owls are at the top of their food chain.
See also: How to Attract Owls to Your Backyard
The eyes of nocturnal owls are perfectly suited for nighttime hunting.
Because both eyes face forward (unlike many birds), owls have great depth perception, which helps them hunt in low light. Additionally, they use both eyes simultaneously so, like us, they can see height, width, and depth, and judge distance.
Unlike us, an owl’s eyes are tube-shaped and do not move. For an owl to see to its left or right, it must turn its head.
And while close objects are difficult to see, they have laser-like vision for anything far away.
Highly Sensitive Ears
Impressive eyes aside, an owl’s hearing ranks number three among the best in the animal kingdom.
An owl’s ears are openings on each side of its head, protected by feathers. In nocturnal owls, one ear is higher and positioned closer to the front of the head than the other. It’s these differences in the position of their ears that allow barn owls, for example, to precisely locate the faintest sound.
How do they do it?
- First, more hearing receptors mean nocturnal owls hear approximately 20 sounds for every one sound we hear.
- Second, owls know if a sound is coming from the left, right, or dead ahead based upon the infinitesimally small difference in the time it takes for a sound to reach one ear before the other. If the left ear detects a sound first, then the sound is from the left. Similarly, right ear first, then from the right. Sounds heard at the same time are straight ahead.
- Finally, owls use the differences in volume to determine if something is above or below. A sound coming from below will seem louder in the lower ear. The opposite is true for sounds above. If a sound is equally loud in both ears, then the source is at eye level.
By detecting differences in time and volume, nocturnal owls can tell precisely where a sound is coming from… both left and right and up and down. Once it has a fix on its target, an owl will launch itself, keeping its eyes and ears tightly focused, adjusting its course as its prey moves.
See also: Fall is a Great Time for Bird Festivals
Owls experience low wing loading, which happens when a flying object, like an owl, has wings with a larger surface relative to its mass. With it, owls can fly with minimal effort and glide for long periods of time without flapping their wings.
Normally, a flying bird creates turbulence as air runs over its wings. The turbulence makes a rushing sound.
But the design of nocturnal and some diurnal owls’ wings includes comb-like feather at the front edge that breaks the air running over its wings into small groups. These micro-turbulences muffle the rushing sound, letting the owls fly silently.
Piercing Talons and a Sharp Beak
Owls have needle-sharp talons, four on each foot. Powerful muscles in their legs allow them to control the strength of their grip. Owls don’t use their talons to kill their prey. Instead, they use their talons to capture, subdue, and anchor their meal.
Owls also have short, curved, downward-facing beaks that are hooked at the end. They use the crushing power of their beaks to snap a prey’s neck, killing it instantly. It then uses its beak to grip and tear its kill.
See also: Talons VS Claws: What’s the Difference?
The Hunt: Putting it All Together
Owls hunt in various ways, but most species, like the Northern hawk owl, wait on a low branch, fence post, or stump for prey to appear. Once sighted, it’s a simple matter of swooping down and grabbing their meal with outstretched talons.
Some owls, like the barn owl, prefer to make low, slow, silent passes across the land in search of a meal.
Still others, including the short-eared owl, will hover above their prey and then suddenly drop from out of the sky.
Burrowing owls commonly run across the ground in pursuit of their prey.
Owls can also adapt their technique to fit the prey. For example, an owl might flush insects and small birds from a tree or shrub and grab it in mid-air.
Other owls, like the Pel’s fishing owl and the Blakiston’s fish owl respectively, skim over water or hang out on the water’s edge to grab fish, crayfish, frogs, snakes, and other tasty treats. Some owls will wade into the water for their meal.
They Never Knew What Hit Them
The genius design of an owl’s anatomy lends itself to superior hunting skills. Perfectly aligned in their purpose, an owl’s eyes, ears, wings, talons, and beak ensure death comes swiftly… rarely does prey get the time to figure out what happened before it became dinner.
And in the world of predator and prey, that’s a fair deal.