To anyone with a fanciful imagination an owl can seem to have an almost human face. Couple this appearance with their often blood-curdling calls and nocturnal habits, and it is perhaps not surprising that these birds feature frequently in mythology and superstition. To some cultures they are symbols of wisdom while to others they represent malevolent spirits or harbingers of doom and death. That they were important in Greek mythology can be noted by the genus name Athene (e.g., the little owl and its allies). Owls also appear often in Chinese legends, as well as in the folklore of Medieval Europe and subsequent eras of western culture.
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
The barn owl and its relatives differ from more typical owls in a number of ways. Most strikingly the facial disc, rather than being rounded, is heart-shaped and this surrounds relatively small, dark eyes.
The barn owl is a most attractive species whose upperparts are a warm buffish brown, speckled with white and black. The face is white, as are the underparts; those found in mainland Europe have a buffish wash on the breast. The legs are long and white with wide-spreading toes and fearsome talons.
As their common name suggests, barn owls are often associated with farm buildings, nesting amongst the rafters or indeed on specially constructed nesting platforms. Their preferred feeding habitats are rough fields and meadows although roadside verges are often favoured these days, their ghostly white shapes sometimes caught in passing car headlights. Barn owls feed primarily at night but are occasionally seen at dusk. They characteristically quarter up and down likely-looking areas for their main quarry - voles and mice - but sometimes scan the ground from a lookout post.
The barn owl is one of the most wide-spread of all land birds. It occurs throughput most of Britain and Europe and across many parts of Asia, Africa, Australia, and in much of North America. In South America it is found in areas of suitable grassland, as well as on oceanic islands such as the Galapagos.
An owl's eyes are, in effect, fixed in their sockets. They face forward and provide a wide angle vision, the overlapping field of view providing a binocular, stereoscopic vision. Having eyes fixed in their sockets could prove a disadvantage when it comes to scanning the surroundings. To compensate for this, owls have evolved incredibly flexible necks that enable the birds to rotate their heads 360 degrees, or even turn them upside down.
As a general rule owls are monogamous, that is to say pairs are comprised of one male and one female, neither one of which has any involvement with other nesting birds. With some owl species the pair bonds last only for the duration of the breeding season, especially if the species involved is dispersive or migratory. In others, particularly sedentary species such as the little owl, pairs may remain together throughout the year. Tawny owl pairs are similarly faithful to one another, their bonds remaining for life.
Owls are territorial, a fact that is particularly evident during the breeding season. They vigorously defend the nest and a well-defined, surrounding feeding territory against members of the same species and other birds that might conceivably compete for the same resources.
In the strict sense of the word, owls do not construct nests in the same way as songbirds do. Instead they are opportunistic nesters, using ready-made sites or taking over the abandoned nests of other birds. Holes in trees are a preferred site for a wide variety of owls, and a few species, notably the barn owls, have adopted the man-made equivalent of these sites - namely, holes in barns and other outbuildings.
Barn owls favour grassland and open country, common only in the western half of the United States; they are largely nocturnal in their habits. Europe's grassland are also home to barn owls, but they are scarce and widespread.
Research gathered from:
Owls - A Portrait of the Animal World by Paul Sterry
Copyright 1995 by Todtri Productions Limited
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