Although some owl species are diurnal (active by day), most owls hunt at night and are seldom observed by humans. Because of this nocturnal (nighttime) existence, they are little known and often misunderstood, even though some owls live their entire lives in close proximity to people.
Owl eyes are exceptionally large and are well suited to night vision. They are more than 100 times sharper than human sight, affording them the ability to see clearly in the darkest of nights.
Because their eyes are fixed in their sockets – they can’t move their eyes up or down or side to side, owls compensate with an incredibly flexible 14 neck vertebrae – humans have 7. This allows them to swivel and rotate their heads with amazing dexterity. Owls can whip their heads 270 degrees so quickly, they give the illusion of being able to turn their heads in a complete circle.
Regardless, owls use their vision primarily for navigation and locate their prey by sound. Their disk shaped face collects and concentrates sounds in the bird’s ears, so the owl can precisely gauge the direction and distance of hidden prey. They hear frequencies up to 20,000 cycles per second (8500 cycles per second is the high range for human hearing), and are able to pick up the high-pitched squeaking of mice and small mammals.
An owl’s ears are located on the sides of the head, but are off-set, not symmetrical like human ears. The openings of the ears are slightly tilted in different directions – often the right ear is longer and set higher up on the skull. By tilting or moving their head until the sound is of equal volume in each ear, the owl can pinpoint the direction and distance of the sound to within a fraction of an inch, even if the prey is hidden by vegetation or snow. This unique trait is called triangulation. It is no wonder the owl is the symbol for wisdom in many cultures. For the owl can see that which others cannot, and this is the essence of true wisdom. The so-called “ear-tufts” on the top of their heads aid in camouflage and recognition between individuals and have nothing to do with hearing.
To achieve silent flight, owl feathers have a velvety soft textured surface and a toothed comb-like leading edge. This unique feature muffles the sound of air rushing over the feathers by breaking up the turbulent air wake into many small turbulences. It is these small turbulences that collide with each other, counteracting any generation of sound.
Unlike other raptors that carry prey in their talons and rip it apart before eating, owls often carry their prey with their bill and then swallow their prey whole. Bones, fur, claws, teeth, and other indigestible items are regurgitated as pellets. These pellets, found at roosting sites, can be examined to determine the owl’s diet.
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Owls of New Jersey
There are eighteen species of owls in North America; eight of these can be found in the Garden State.
Snow Owl, Stone Harbor, New Jersey (Steve Greer / SteveGreerPhotography.com)
SNOWY OWL Bubo scandiacus is a large bird, 21 to 28 inches tall, and has a wingspan of 50 to 65 inches. This bird is from the Canadian tundra, but can occasionally be found in New Jersey during the winter. It prefers open country such as fields, pastures, coastal beaches and airports.
GREAT HORNED OWL Bubo virginianus
The Great Horned Owl is New Jersey’s most impressive owl. Standing 18 to 25 inches tall, with a wingspan of 48 to 60 inches, it is indeed a powerful and fearless bird of prey. Primarily a woodland species, the Great Horned Owl is occasionally found in parks and orchards. It is non-migratory and occurs throughout the state in good numbers year round.
BARRED OWL Strix varia
The Barred Owl is one of our largest owls, 16 to 23 inches tall with a 38 to 45 inch wingspan. This owl is predominantly nocturnal and lives in deep woods and swamps. a year-round dweller, it is on the Threatened Species list in New Jersey because of diminishing habitat.
BARN OWL Tyto alba
Barn Owls, sometimes called “Monkeyfaced” owls because of their heart-shaped faces, are strictly nocturnal. As their name suggests, they commonly select man-made structures in which to live: silos, water tanks, church towers and barns are favored sites. They are 14 to 20 inches tall with a wing-span of 40 to 45 inches.
SHORT-EARED OWL Asio flammeus
Medium sized, 13 to 17 inches tall with a wingspan of 39 to 44 inches, the Short-eared Owl was once a frequent nester in the marshes and meadowlands of New Jersey, but development of these wetlands have greatly reduced the habitat for these birds, and recent breeding records are scarce. However, it is still a fairly common winter resident. This owl lives in open fields, marshes and meadows, and nests on the ground, well hidden in the reeds and grasses.
LONG-EARED OWL Asio otus
The Long-eared Owl, a nocturnal bird about the size of a crow, has a 36 to 42 inch wingspan. This owl lives in deep woodlands, preferring dense groves of conifers. Although it does breed in isolated locations in New Jersey, it is best known as a winter visitor, when several owls can often be found roosting In the same evergreen tree.
SCREECH OWL Otus asio
The Screech Owl is New Jersey’s most common breeding owl and is a permanent, year round resident. Preferring open woodland terrain, it lives in rural suburbs, farming districts, city parks and apple orchards. It is small, 7 to 10 inches tall with a wingspan of 18 to 24 inches, and occurs in two color phases, or morphs: gray and red.
SAW-WHET OWL Aegolius acadicus
The Saw-Whet Owl is New Jersey’s smallest bird of prey. Only 7 to 8 inches tall with a wingspan of 18 to 21 inches, this mini-owl weighs a mere 4 ounces. Saw-Whets are seldom observed because of their small size, their nocturnal habits, and the dense, deep woods in which they live. These owls seldom breed in New Jersey. They are regular winter visitors here, but their numbers vary greatly from year to year.
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