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Spotlight on Owls - Get to Know the Owls of the Pacific Northwest

snowy owlOwl families have 146 species worldwide.  There are two families of owls.  One contains two species of Barn owls and the other contains all other owls.  There are 19 species native to North America and 15 species found in Washington. 

Owls belong to a larger category of birds called Raptors or Birds of Prey, which includes the hawks, eagles and falcons.  This means they are carnivores and have strong, hooked beaks used to consume their prey, and sharp, curved claws called talons, which they use to catch their prey.  All raptors share these characteristics.

Almost all owls are nocturnal, but there are some species, such as the burrowing owl, that are diurnal.  Owls have a few special adaptations that help them to survive at night.  Owl’s eyes are very large and powerful; owls can focus about 8 times faster than humans, and their vision, in terms of detail and clarity, is 3 times that of ours.  Their eyes are so large that they need to be permanently set in the bone structure of the head.  Owls are therefore unable to move their eyes as humans can.  To compensate for this, they are able to turn their head around approximately 270 degrees, or about three quarters the way around in each direction, giving the appearance that they can turn their heads all the way around. 

Orion, one of our educational ambassadors, is a great horned owl. Read more about Orion and our education program.

An owl’s hearing is just as important as its eyesight.  The ears are located just behind and to the sides of the eyes.  A flap of feathers conceals the ears and they do not protrude as human’s ears do.  Owl’s ears are asymmetrically placed, meaning one ear is slightly higher than the other is.  This increases the owl’s ability to pinpoint the exact location of a sound.  Some owls have large facial disks surrounding the eyes.  These disks act as miniature satellite dishes to funnel sound to the ears.  The excellent hearing greatly aids the owls in hunting at night.  The hearing is so acute; some owls, such as the Great Grey Owl, are able to catch a mouse beneath 18” of snow by only hearing its movements as it burrows beneath the snow.

Owls have soft feathers that cover the entire body all the way down to the talons.  The feet of other raptors, such as eagles, are not feathered.  Owls also have unique feathers that help to diffuse sound waves, which gives the owls their nearly silent flight.

The largest owl species is the Eagle Owl found in North Africa, Europe, Asia, Middle East, can weigh over 9 lbs and take prey as large as a roe deer fawn.  The smallest owl species weigh about 1.6 oz. 

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