Owls date back 60 million years or longer, and they’re found in nearly every type of habitat: tropical, tundra, desert, Central Park. Some 229 species are known, and the list keeps growing: last summer, two new species of hawk owl were discovered in the Philippines, and earlier this month researchers reported on a new species of screech-like owl from the island of Lombok, Indonesia. The birds own the night, although some hunt at dusk and dawn and even during the day. And hunt owls tirelessly do. By one estimate, a group, or “parliament,” of 10 owl families living in a barn in Central Florida cleared the surrounding sugarcane fields of about 25,000 cotton rats a year.
Owls were long thought to be closely related to birds of prey like hawks and eagles, which they sometimes superficially resemble — hence the names hawk owls and eagle owls. But similarities of beak or talon turn out to be the result of evolutionary convergence on optimal meat-eating equipment, and recent genetic analysis links the owls to other nocturnal birds, like nightjars.
Through the Global Owl Project, Mr. Johnson is working with researchers in 65 countries to compile a vast database and celebration of all the world’s owls, with descriptions, natural history, genetics, vocalizations, rough population estimates, owl myths and legends.
Westerners love owls, he said, a tradition that dates back at least to the ancient Greeks and the association of owls with the wise goddess, Athena, and her gray “shining eyes.” In some countries, though, owls are seen as bad omens and harbingers of death — perhaps, Mr. Johnson proposed, because owls often nest in cemeteries, where trees are left to grow undisturbed and the nesting cavities are comfortably large.
Would that owls might lend us their ears. Species like the barn, barred, screech and horned have some of the keenest auditory systems known, able to hear potential prey stirring deep under leaves, snow or grass, identify the rodent species and even assess its relative plumpness or state of pregnancy, based on sound alone.
Again scientists attribute that to a consortium of traits. Prof. Tim Birkhead of the University of Sheffield points out in his new book, “Bird Sense,” that the owl cochlea is “enormous” and densely packed with sensory cilia. The barn owl, for example, has three times the number of hair cells expected for its body size. The paired ear openings are also exceptionally large and asymmetrically placed on either side of the skull, the better to help localize a sound’s origin; the super-swively neck further enhances the power to sample the ambient soundscape.
Then there is the owl’s famously flat face, also called the facial disk — pie-shaped in some species, heart-shaped Kabuki in the barn owl. The facial disk serves as a kind of satellite dish, to gather sound waves, which are then directed to the owl’s ears by stiff, specialized feathers along the disk circumference. Even the owl’s forward-facing eyes may have as much to do with hearing as with vision. Graham Martin of the University of Birmingham has proposed that with so much of the lateral real estate on the owl’s skull taken up by the giant ear openings, the only place left to position its eyes is in the middle of the face.
Here’s looking at you, Strix. Will you please call again?
(read more at NYTimes.com)
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