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Owls: Top 10 Questions

December 2010

Thanks to Vicky Runnoe, Conservation Education Supervisor, Idaho Department of Fish and Game; Barb Forderhase, Education Specialist, Bureau of Land Management for the answers.

1: What is the biggest owl in the world?

Most people feel it is the Eurasian Eagle Owl. (From Derek in Mrs. Bowe's class at McDonald Elementary School in Moscow)

2: What is the life span of a Great Horned Owl?

The general rule of thumb is that the smaller you are, the shorter your lifespan. The bigger you are, the longer your lifespan. A Great Horned Owl lives between 20 to 25 years. (From Zach in Mrs. Bowe's class at McDonald Elementary School in Moscow)

3: Do owls have good eyesight?

They have excellent eyesight. Owls can see in situations that are totally dark to you and me. If you were in a cave and put your hand in front of your face, you wouldn't be able to see your hand. An owl could see it. They have amazing eyes. (From Jace in Mrs. Robertson's class at A.H. Bush Magnet School in Idaho Falls)

4: Do owls build nests in trees or on the ground?

They actually do both. A burrowing owl will nest in burrows in the ground. He may dig his own, but also uses leftover burrows from badgers and other creatures. Some owls nest on top of the ground by making a depression and using feathers and sticks. Great Horned Owls use leftover nests from magpies, crows and ravens and can be found nesting on cliff faces or in trees. (From Ashley in Boehne's class at McDonald Elementary School in Moscow)

5: Why do owls fly so silently?

Their feathers have a lot to do with why they can fly so quietly. Owls have a comb on the front edge of their wings. The comb allows the air to glide over the wings through slots and therefore doesn't make a lot of noise allowing the owl to sneak up on its prey. (From Devyn in Mrs. Boehne's class at McDonald Elementary School in Moscow)

6: Do owls turn their heads completely around?

No. Owls have cervical vertebrae in their necks and it is physically impossible for them to go a full 360 degrees. They do have more neck bones than we do. We have seven and they have 14, allowing them to turn their heads further. (From Natalia in Mrs. Schweitzer's class at Riverside Elementary School in Boise)

7: What do owls eat?

Anything and everything they can catch, but it depends on the type of bird. The burrowing owl will spend more time looking for large insects. They will also eat mice and occasionally little reptiles and amphibians. Bigger owls are going to go after larger things, even as big as a skunk. (From Lily in Mrs. Schweitzer's class at Riverside Elementary School in Boise)

8: When do owls sleep?

Most owls snooze during the daytime, but not all. The short haired and burrowing owls can be up during the day like us. It also depends on what's going on. During the breeding season, Mom is taking care of the chicks and Dad is hunting 24 hours a day as he has to feed himself, Mom, and the chicks. (From Daniel in Mrs. Schweitzer's class at Riverside Elementary School in Boise)

9: How do owls turn their heads so far?

In addition to having the 14 bones in their necks as discussed before, their head is attached to their spine at one point. Ours is attached at two points. This allows them to turn their heads farther. In addition, they can't move their eyes in their eye sockets, so if they hear something, they have to turn their heads to see it. (From Rowdy in Ms. Hoover's class at Trailwind Elementary School in Boise)

10: Why can't owls digest the bones in their meal?

Just like us, their stomach acid isn't strong enough to digest those bones. Rather than wasting the energy to digest something that isn't useful to them, they just throw it back up. Also, owls' intestines squiggle back and forth with sharp corners. If they digested the bones, the bones could get caught in the corners causing health issues. (From Jada in Mrs. Hunt's class at Cynthia Mann Elementary School in Boise)

December 2007

Thanks to Vicky Runnoe, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and Larry Ridenhour, Bureau of Land Management for the answers.

1: How many different types of owls live in Idaho?

North America has 19 different owls. Idaho is a great place for owls because we have 14 different kinds of owls living here. They're all found scattered throughout the state. We have certain owls, like the Great Horned Owl, that you can find in all different habitats in Idaho - up in the mountains of northern Idaho, the forested areas, or in the deserts of southwest Idaho. (From Daniel in Mrs. Maybon's class at Homedale Elementary School)

2: What kind of foods do owls eat?

Owls will eat just about anything they can catch. The smaller owls will capture little crickets, grasshoppers, moths, night flying, early morning creepy crawly insects. But an animal as big as the Great Horned Owl may actually eat skunks, rabbits, squirrels, and anything in between. Also, a large number of the owls eat rodents. (From Jared in Mrs. Sundvik's class at Cynthia Mann Elementary School)

3: Can owls turn their heads all the way around?

No, they can't. Owls can turn their heads about three-quarters of a circle, about 270 degrees. They are able to do this because they have twice as many neck vertebrae as we have. We have seven and owls have 14. Their muscles are very elastic and strong and they can turn their heads very quickly from one side to the other. That is probably why people think owls can turn their heads all of the way around. They can turn their head back so fast to us it almost looks like they have turned their head all the way around. (From Mrs. Baille's class at Pinehurst Elementary School in Pinehurst, Idaho)

4: Do owls chew their food?

They don't. They do what your mother always tells you not to do - they don't chew well and they swallow their food whole. (From Mrs. Baille's class at Pinehurst Elementary School in Pinehurst, Idaho)

5: How well do owls hear?

Studies have shown that the Great Gray Owl, Idaho's largest owl by height, not weight, can hear a mouse from 60 feet away when it is about almost a foot and a half underneath the snow. That is pretty good hearing. Measuring-wise, I don't know if they have done a lot of studies to measure how far. Since they hunt mainly by hearing they need to be able to hear very well. (From David, a homeschooler in Weiser, Idaho)

6: What is the biggest owl?

The tallest owls are Great Gray Owls. Snowy Owls, which are Harry Potter types, they're the heaviest. They weigh a little over four pounds. The great gray owl, which is actually bigger physically, only weighs 2.5 pounds. Great Horned Owls are kind of in the mix with them. They have about the same wing span that a great gray would have, but are a little lighter than a snowy owl. (From Kinley in Mrs. McCamish-Cameron's class at Cynthia Mann Elementary in Boise)

7: How can owls fly so quietly?

It has to do with the edges of the flight feathers. When a hawk flies it is fairly loud because the air is moving against the wings. But an owl's wing is almost like a cone right on the very edge, and the air moves through it; you just don't hear that. It is very, very silent. (From Tessa in Mrs. McCamish-Cameron's class at Cynthia Mann Elementary in Boise)

8: Why do Great Horned Owls have feathers that look like ears?

They're not ears, they're used as camouflage. When you see an owl, especially if you are looking for them during the day, you are trying to spot them and that round head will stand out, especially this time of year in a barren tree. What they will do is raise their feathers and pull their body feathers in tight to break up the silhouette so it looks like just another part of the tree. (From Chris in Mrs. Hunt's class at Cynthia Mann Elementary School)

9: Do owls see better during the day or at night?

Owls actually see quite well during the day, but they see so much better at night and it has to do with several things. One is that they have huge eyeballs. The eyeball takes up more room inside their head than the brain does. You can see those big eye sockets, and in those eyes they have a couple of different kinds of cells like we do called rods and cones. Cones are how animals see color. Rods allow them to see light and dark. Owls have a lot more rod cells in their eyes, which allow them to pick up all the light and dark. If you have ever seen an animal where there is light flashed against it and you see that funny looking eye shine, they have them on the back of both eyes, and owls also have those. If you combine all of that, it gives them excellent eyesight in darkness. (From Ira in Mrs. Spellman's class at Payette Middle School)

10: Do owls blink?

They actually do. The interesting thing is that unlike humans, who typically only blink our top eyelid, owls blink both eyelids. A lot of times when they are just blinking to clear the lens off they will use the top; a lot of time when they sleep they will raise their lower eyelid up. And they also have a third eyelid that is a clear membrane that brushes across the eyelid to clean it off from any debris. (From MinHeyk in Mrs. Kopke's class at Riverside Elementary School)

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