Amazing barn owl nocturnal facts

A barn owl.

Barn owls nocturnal facts

When a barn owl was put in a totally dark room with leaves on the floor and live mice rustling among them, it caught them all.

The same feat could have been accomplished by other nocturnal owls, but certainly the barn owl is a specialist.

In total darkness its ears become its eyes.

Barn owls have a sense of directional hearing that is more accurate than that of any other land animal studied.

When we want to hear a very faint sound, we turn our ear toward its source and may cup a hand behind our ear to collect the sound waves and channel them into our ear openings.

The barn owl’s face is designed to do this automatically, and extremely faint sounds not perceptible to us are easily heard.

World Book’s Science explains:

"The barn owl’s great sensitivity to sound is largely due to the sound-collecting property of the facial ruff—the wall of stiff, densely packed feathers that makes a heart-shaped outline around the face. . . . Like a hand cupped behind an ear, the large surface of the ruff collects sound and channels it into the ear openings.”

The design for hearing does not stop with the barn owl’s ruff.

Another ‘cupped hand’ is available for channeling the sound to the ear opening.

Science Year describes it:

“The pink flap that lies over the barn owl’s ear opening has a structural resemblance to the human outer ear. Feathers on the outside of the ear flap and in the ruff behind the ear act like cupped hands to funnel sound into the opening.”

This ear flap, however, is not just another ‘cupped hand’ to reinforce the sound-gathering power of the facial ruff.

It, along with the ruff, is especially designed to add an entirely new dimension to the barn owl’s directional hearing capabilities.

The ear openings in the barn owl’s skull are symmetrical, that is, the right and left ear openings are placed exactly opposite in the skull.

The external ear structures, however, are not symmetrical.

Both the right ear flap and the external ear opening are lower and directed upward, whereas the left ear flap and the external ear opening are higher and directed downward.

Hence, the right ear, with its ear flap and opening cupped upward, is more sensitive to sounds coming from above, whereas the left ear, with its ear flap and opening cupped downward, is more sensitive to sounds from below.

If the sound is more intense in the right ear, the owl knows its source is above; if more intense in the left ear, the source is below.

Similarly, if the sound’s source is more horizontal than vertical and is heard by the right ear before the left one, it is immediately perceived as coming from the right; if heard first by the left ear, it is perceived as coming from the left.

The owl’s head is small, so the difference in time of arrival of the sound at one ear as compared to the other is minimal, measured in microseconds (a microsecond is one millionth of a second).

The owl’s directional response to sound is immediate—within a hundredth of a second, the owl’s face turns toward the source.

Its ability to process instantaneously these split-second cues is critical to pinpointing the sound’s source.

As mentioned before, the owl’s eyes are virtually immovable.

This is not a mistake in design, however.

The owl’s neck is so flexible that some owls can turn the head as much as 270 degrees, enabling it to see even directly behind itself.

Moreover, that the eyes are immovable is an asset.

It means that whenever the owl hears a sound and turns its head toward the source, its eyes are automatically aimed in that direction.

It sees the source of the sound a hundredth of a second after it hears it.

Barn owl sounds

Picture of a barn owl making sounds.

The feathers of most birds make noise as they whir through the air in flight.

Not so with owl feathers; they are specially designed for silence.

They are soft and downy, with a velvety feel, so wind makes no noise as it passes over them.

The flight feathers do not have straight, hard edges like those of most birds, which produce a whirring noise as they fan the air in flight.

The barbs on the owl’s feathers are uneven in length, leaving soft fringed edges that make no sound as they sweep through the air.

This devotion to silence, however, is abandoned when owls engage in owl talk—hoots, warblings, whistlings, clacking of beaks, and claps of the wings in flight.

Some researchers refer to these noises as owl songs, and to owl ears some of the noises may pass for singing, since they do play a role in courtship communication between mated pairs.

Though they may not originally have been for this purpose, owls are valuable today in controlling insects and rodents.

The barn owl especially is considered the farmer’s friend, ridding his fields of mice and rats and other pests that eat his crops.

In some places owls are encouraged by special “owl doors” to provide easy access to farm buildings.

In Malaysia, oil-palm growers put up nesting boxes for barn owls—and that’s not charity.

The pair that lives there pays rent, annually ridding the farmer of up to 3,000 rats that otherwise would have eaten his crop.

And the barn owls add a touch of beauty.

They are among the most beautiful of birds, distributed worldwide, and they have one of the most intriguing heart-shaped faces in nature.

When you think of the big eyes that gather in the faintest light, the ears that catch a whisper of sound from any direction, and the flight feathers that slip silently through the air, you must marvel at those nocturnal owls that are so well equipped for nightlife.