Barn owl close up

Owls

Did you know it was International Owl Awareness Day on Tuesday 4 August? To celebrate this week, here are some of the owls you might be lucky enough to see in the UK. These are truly fascinating animals, with some amazing adaptations for their way of life. So let’s go explore these night-time wonders…

Silent Flight

Photograph of a barn owl in flight
(c) Stephen Bowler

Have you every listened to the sound of a woodpigeon taking off? The flapping of their wings makes quite the racket. Not so for an owl. When you are trying to creep up on your prey on a still night, you don’t want them to hear you coming. To help with their stealth, owls have special flight feathers with a velvety texture to absorb sound. The leading edges of the feathers are serrated to break up turbulent air flow, and a fringe along the trailing edge dampens the sound further. This, combined with a wing shape and size able that enables owls to glide and only occasionally flap their wings, means they can fly almost silently.

Sensational Senses

Skull of a little owl

Owls have enormous eyes. Take a look at an owl skull and you will see huge eye sockets to accommodate them. Their eyes are tubular in shape, rather than being ball-shaped. This is an adaptation to seeing in low light conditions. However, it means that they can’t roll their eyes around to look in different directions like we can. Instead they have to move the entire head. Try turning your head around – how far will it turn? Some owls can turn their heads through 270 degrees. Imagine being able to do that?

Barn owl close up
(c) University of Cambridge & Julieta Sarmiento Photography

The owl eyes are big and noticable, but when talking about owl senses it is their hearing that is really impressive. Researchers have worked in detail on owl hearing, and it is quite exceptional the way they are able to pinpoint the position of their prey using sound. Take a look at the face of an owl. Unlike most birds, the face is quite flat – almost dish-like. The feathers of the face we refer to as the facial disc, and they are important in directing sound to the ears, a bit like a satellite dish collecting signals. Underneath these feathers, the skull is asymmetrical, with one ear higher on the face than the other. Why is that? The tiny difference in when the sound reaches each of the ears can be used by the brain to compute precisely where a sound is coming from. So not only are owl ears sensitive to extremely quiet sounds, they are also able to tell the direction of sound with pinpoint accuracy. A remarkable system.

Owl Pellets

What do owls eat? Find an owl pellet and this is a question you can answer quite easily. Owls are birds of prey, feeding on small mammals, birds and other animals. They can’t digest everything, and will cough up bones, fur and feathers in the form of an owl pellet. We can then cut open these owl pellets and see the animals that were eaten – the skulls and bones are often whole in there.

UK owl species

There are five species of owl resident in the UK today:

Tawny Owl, Strix aluco

(c) Sue Cro

The most common species of owl in the UK, the tawny owl has mottled brown feathers.Tawny owls prefer woodland habitats. Males make their characteristic hooting call, but this is not the only sound of tawny owls. Here are some tawny owl fledglings making begging calls – there are at least three birds calling here, with the sounds coming from different directions in the wood.

Begging calls of tawny owl fledglings at dusk. (c) Rosalyn Wade

Barn Owl, Tyto alba

(c) Andrew Pescod

Barn owls have a biscuit-coloured back and creamy-coloured feathers underneath. Their pale facial disc is heart-shaped. They tend to be active at dawn and dusk (an activity pattern we call being crepuscular), and hunt over grassland and farmland.

Long-eared Owl, Asio otus

Photograph of a long-eared owl
(c) rp_naturephotography

The ‘long ears’ of long-eared owls are not ears at all, but tufts of feathers sticking up from the head that are raised when the bird is alarmed. These owls are pretty tricky to see, being nocturnal and quite secretive.

Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus

Photograph of a short-eared owl

Short-eared owls can be seen hunting during the day. They breed in northern England and Scotland, but you might spot them along the coast or around wetlands further south in the winter.

Little Owl, Athene noctua

As the name would suggest, this is our smallest species of owl. Little owls are not native to the UK, but were introduced here in the 19th century. They can hunt in day or night, and you might spot them in rural environements sitting on fence posts watching for prey.

You can find out more about the owls of the UK on the RSPB website.

Have you been inspired by the owls in the post? Why not have a look at our owl crafts page, and make your own owl mask, or download our tawny owl colouring sheet.

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