Wild Sarasota Spotlight: owl adaptations

Florida is home to 5 species of owls each with their own special characteristics and abilities. While it seems everyone wants to be as wise as an owl, there are many other adaptations that make owls enviable.

Read on to learn owl you need to know about owls or watch our Wild Sarasota webinar: Owls of Florida.

What makes an owl an owl?

Owls have sharp talons and zygodactyl toes (two forward and two backward facing for gripping branches and squirming prey. Image credit: Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

All owls are raptors, or birds of prey, meaning they’re carnivorous and designed to be predators. With well developed eyes, 8 sharp talons, and a hooked upper beak, raptors easily spy, catch, and dismantle their prey.

While raptors encompass a broad range of birds from condors and eagles to kites and osprey, owls are any member of the families Strigidae and Tytonidae. The 250 global species of owls share the common characteristics of facial disks, forward facing eyes, feathered feet, and zygodactyl toes. Generally, owls are large headed, squat birds with forward facing eyes.

Owls in Florida

Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia); Image credit:  Jhoneil Centeno on Unsplash

The barn owl, the great-horned owl, the eastern screech owl, the barred owl, and the burrowing owl make Florida their home. Barn owls are amazing hunters of rodents and prefer open fields and agriculture areas where they easily locate their preferred food. The great-horned owl is the largest owl in North America and can take prey even larger than itself. Eastern screech owls and barred owls each have a very unique call and can be found in neighborhoods as well as our natural areas in Sarasota County. Burrowing owls live in underground burrows and hunt on the ground during the day. Congratulations to the burrowing owl who was named the 2022 Bird of the Year by the American Birding Association.

Hypersensitive Hearing

Owls were made to listen and can even hear sounds undetectable to the human ear. While the ear tufts found on some owl species are not used for hearing, owls have other adaptations that give them an edge.

Female barn owl (Tyto alba). Her heart shaped facial disk and downward facing beak help amplify sounds. Image credit: UF/IFAS

Facial Disks

The feather patterns on owls’ faces funnel sounds directly towards their ears amplifying the noise. Owls are even able to tighten their facial muscles, altering the disk shape and magnifying certain sounds.

Asymmetric Ears

Owls have asymmetric ears that enhance their ability to locate prey. One ear opening is higher than the other. As sound waves make it to each ear at slightly different times, the owl is able to pinpoint the prey’s exact location, even without the use of sight. This is called “triangulation”. Owls are able to hunt in complete darkness and catch unsuspecting prey even under layers of leaves or snow.

Sight and Silent Flight

Great-horned owl (Bubo virginianus). With fixed eyes, owls have impressive neck mobility and can turn their heads up to 270 degrees. Image credit: Caroline Ebinger on Unsplash

Owls are known for their forward facing eyes and incredible head mobility. Unlike humans, their eyes are not able to move around independently. Instead, owls swivel their heads to see the periphery.

Owls are also notoriously far-sighted allowing them to spy prey from far away. Rather than having spherical eyes like us, owls have tube shaped eyes that aid in depth perception. Objects can get blurry up close, but by then, their catch is already secured.

Owls also have silent flight for added stealth. With broad wings compared to their body size, owls can stay aloft with minimal wing flaps and easily cut through the air. Moreover, owls have fringe along the edge of their primary feathers that dampens any potential noise.

Whooo knew owls were so fascinating? To learn more, watch our Wild Sarasota webinar: Owls of Florida for a deeper dive into the 5 species who call Florida home.

Read a synopsis of this series, with a list of all related posts http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/sarasotaco/2021/08/02/wild-sarasota-series/.

Posted: May 12, 2022

Category: Natural Resources, Wildlife
Tags: Native, Nature, Owls, Pgm_EcoNR, Species, Wild Sarasota

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