Editor's Picks

11 February 2012

Night Time Hunters - The Owls

Did You Know...?
…that there are more than 100 different species of owls in the world — they are native on every continent except Antarctica.
…that owls have the best night vision of any creature known.
… that owls are very useful in keeping small rodents in check — without them we would be overrun with mice and small vermin.
… that it is really hard to get out of the owl's line of vision. The owl can't roll its eyes but it can fix its eyes on an object and turn its head to the right and keep turning it until it is actually looking over its left shoulder.
… that owls fly perfectly noiselessly, because of a special nap on their wings which muffles sound.
… that owls lay between 1 and 4 eggs, per season, depending on the availability of food (rodents and small pests).
… that the average lifetime of an owl is about 20 years.
… that different species of owls make different sounds. Some hoot, others chirp, others whistle, or warble, screech, shriek, chatter, laugh, buzz, bark, growl, or sing.
… that the owl swallows its prey whole. Its stomach automatically separates meat from bones and fur.
… that most owls are not friendly with other birds or with each other. Northern owls prefer to raise their families in December, after other birds have migrated south. They use nests built and abandoned by other birds.

Are you looking for another evidence of your Creator's masterful handiwork? Don't miss the owl.

Do you seldom see an owl? There are probably two reasons. As the sun rises, most owls go to sleep, either in deep shade on large tree branches, in holes in trees, or on the ground. Secondly, they are heavily camouflaged, being mottled in color, to blend with their background. In the far north, many owls have only a faint pattern on a whitish background (like snow); in temperate forests, a bold pattern on a mixed background (like woods); in desert areas, a medium to fine pattern on a field of gray (like sand); in the humid tropics a coarse pattern resembling bark and leaves. (Did the owl decide what color to wear in what habitat?)

The hundred plus species of owls are found in all parts of the world, except Antarctica, and range in size from giants two feet tall down to the size of the sparrow. They utilize virtually all habitats, from grasslands to dense woodlands to rain forests. Most owls feed on rodents, the size of the prey varying with the size of the owl. The smallest owls eat insects and are singularly adapted to catch them. The whiskered owl prefers flying insects, and has been seen performing a unique trick: it will fly up to a large blooming flower and flap its wings to scare out any insects inhabiting the flower, then gulp them down as they emerge. Two species of owls like to eat fish, and are specially equipped to catch them. The bay owl prefers the flavor of bats, and at dusk will station itself at the entrance to a bat cave, ready to catch the bats as they come out to hunt.


Owls are avid and capable communicators, and depend on their sounds to defend their territories and talk with their mates. Some species of owls chirp, others whistle, some warble, some screech, or shriek, or chatter, or laugh. Some buzz, some bark, some hoot or growl—and some actually sing. A certain type of owl has been observed to repeat a singing phrase 100 times without interruption or pause. The North American screech owls, male and female, when separated, often practice antiphonal singing, each answering the other as the two approach together. When eventually they meet, they sing a duet, the female carrying the higher part.

The owl has outstanding eyesight. Each large round eye, encased in a bony socket, is virtually immovable. But this is not a problem, since the owl can turn its head more than 180 degrees in any direction—the owl can look directly backward, forward, straight up, or straight down, or any angle in between without moving its body. (It can actually turn its head a full circle and a half.) In addition, its vision is binocular and three dimensional, which is especially useful for spotting small animals at a distance.

Since most owls are most active at night (a few are daytime hunters), their eyes are especially adapted for the night. Our Creator has truly designed the owl to work at night. Human eyes have both cone cells (for distinguishing color) and rod cells (for gathering light). The eye of the owl is tightly packed with rod cells only, resulting in an absence of color vision but a great increase in light sensitivity. Daytime vision is about ten times better than ours, but their ability to see at night is amazing. The owl cannot actually see in the dark, but the pupil of the eye opens wide and its supersensitive retina is able to gather light from levels as low as the light from the stars, giving the owl an actual sight impression where we would see nothing. An owl can see and catch a small animal in light equivalent to that emitted by an ordinary candle 2500 feet away.

Owls do not depend entirely on their eyesight to capture their food. More important are their ears. Experiments have shown that the owl can locate its prey solely by hearing. On a dark night, an owl perched in a tree can hear the rustling sounds made by a mouse underneath grass and leaves on the ground below, can accurately localize the signal and strike and capture the prey without any visual aid. This requires a supersensitive and complex hearing mechanism, which we can only attribute to our great Creator's design.

What is singular about the owl's method of hearing? The ear of the owl is surrounded by a ruff of papery feathers that serve to concentrate sound. The very large ears (the eardrums are the largest found in any bird in the world) are located on the side of the head, but are not visible because covered with lacy feathers which permit sound to enter easily. A movable flap toward the back of the ear acts as a baffle to focus sound. The feathers on the owl's face are also designed to collect and bounce sound waves into the eardrums. (Did all this just happen to enhance the owl's ability to hear?)

Since the owl has a large head, the ears are far apart. And they are so constructed that the one ear is inverted to the other—the opening of the ear canal is in the upper part of one ear, and in the lower part of the other. This means that the owl receives sound on two planes, and the sound enters one ear a fraction of a second before it does the other. The time lapse difference may seem infinitesimal, but it is sufficient for the owl to know precisely the direction from which the sound is coming. By cocking its head at different angles, it can get different readings, and can pinpoint an origin of sound many feet away. This ability makes the owl an able hunter, by day or night.


The owl's feathers are part of its special equipment for survival, and are no accident of chance. The wing feathers of most birds are made for flight, with a stiff shaft and tiny barbs that connect one feather to another. The wings of the owl have soft, fuzzy edges, which muffle the sound of their movement and allow the owl to fly silently. What are the advantages of noiseless flight? The owl while in flight can hear its prey moving on the ground without any interference from the sound of its own wings. And the prey is easily surprised, not hearing the approaching enemy.

Owls are also dressed for the weather. In the north, the plumage is soft, dense, and loose; and a thick layer of down provides insulation against the cold. (Did the owls figure out how to grow “down” when they were cold year after year?)

The owl also uses its sharp talons to lift its prey to its wide mouth, and with one gulp swallows it whole. The owl doesn't have to separate meat from bones, because its stomach is specially constructed to digest the flesh and squeeze the fur and bones into two-inch pellets, which are pushed up its throat and spit out the next day.

Equipped for the Night Shift
Owls are especially prepared to function successfully in the dark.

Feet and toes

The owl is further equipped to catch prey—each foot has four talons, needle sharp and exceptionally strong for the size of the bird—just what it needs to grab scurrying rodents. Its talons are another example of perfect design - they operate much like ice hooks. Once they grab, the prey rarely escapes. And if it tries to bite or snap at the owl, the owl's legs and feet are heavily feathered so that the fighting captive can do little or no harm to the owl. (Did the owl decide to grow feathers on its feet after it was bitten many times?) An exception are those owls that live on fish, which have no feathers on their feet and legs— they don't need them. Besides, they'd be always getting cold and wet!

In northern latitudes, some smaller species of owls nest a month or two earlier in the spring than most birds. Young owls are frequently covered by several inches of snow. The larger owls native to the colder parts of the Northern Hemisphere prefer to raise their young when other birds have migrated south. They mate in the fall and nest in December, using abandoned nests of other birds (usually crows). Keeping the chicks warm and fed is a full-time job for the parents. But egg laying among all owls is timed so that the young are hatched when food populations are the greatest. Owls have no trouble finding an abundance of rodents, field mice, and other small animals, even in winter.

How could our Creator provide so lavishly for a small, simple animal of the night?
What can we say, but that the Hand that made them is Divine?

There are signs for the believing nation in the creation of their (own) selves, and the creation of the animals He has scattered (across the world)." [Quran 45:4]

Scientific data in this article is from:
  • The ABC's of Nature, “All About Owls,” pp. 228-229
  • Marvels and Mysteries of Our Animal World, by Peter Farb; published by The Readers Digest Association, pp. 148-149
  • also Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition, 15:75-77; and 27:160.
  • Images: wikipedia.org
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