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Owl...ling success

July 2013

OwlDespite generally declining numbers, owls are enjoying a peak in popularity. Not surprisingly really, with their enormous eyes, fixed stares and funny way of turning their heads, these beautiful birds are well loved by all ages.

Today increasing numbers of special bird parks are opening up across the UK when you can see these birds at close hand and even enjoy the thrill of seeing them flying free close to you.

This is a fabulous experience as it is very rare indeed to see an owl in the wild these days. Occasionally in the country you may hear the spooky swish as a wonderful barn owl quietly flies after pray; or you may hear the gentle screech or famous terwit terwoo of a distant owl, but for most of us, to see an owl up close usually requires a visit to a special owl sanctuary or bird park.

The biggest charm of owls has to be their enormous eyes. With their penetrating fixed stare, it is no wonder that the phrase “wise old owl” was coined.  The eyes are fixed and unable to move around like our eyes. Instead, to look for side to side, an owl swivels its head - it can turn its head around 270°, which means it can see behind it without having to move. Interestingly, owls are also farsighted. Great to spot prey at a distance but this makes it difficult for them to focus on objects close up.  It is generally believed that owls have amazing night vision, partly due to the large sized retinal images produced in its big wide eyes.

Owls may be known for their excellent vision, but they also have good hearing, with an audible range similar to that of humans, but far more acute in certain frequencies. This allows them to detect even the slightest movements of prey. In some species such as barn owls, the ears are set in different places on the ear, ie they are not equally placed on either side of the head. This means an owl can work out the direction from which the sound is coming by the tiny difference in time that it takes for the sound waves to reach both the left and right ear.

Owls hunt mainly small mammals, insects and sometimes other birds although there are a few species who hunt fish.  Mice, voles and shrews are key items in their diets. They can swallow these whole and then regurgitate the indigestible parts of the prey such as the bones and fur in the form of small owl pellets.  These pellets are often the main clue people have that owls live in certain areas.

Barn OwlBarn owls are one of Britain’s favourite owls, with their beautiful heart-shaped faces and white fronts. They are found all over the UK although in recent years there has been concern about their numbers declining.  They have a problem not only from reduced natural habitats, but also because they struggle to catch prey in bad weather. Their feathers are not very waterproof, so they prefer to hunt in dry weather.

The other four main owls found in Britain are the Tawny Owl, with its characteristic dark ring of feathers around its face; the Little Owl, which has the endearing characteristic of bobbing its head up and down when it is frightened;  and the Long Eared and the Short Eared owl. The short eared owl can often been seen hunting during the day in winter time.

Other owls, including the stunning eagle owls and snowy owls, are usually only seen in official conservation parks and wild life centres. Luckily more and more specialist parks are opening, many combining falconry displays with shows from birds of prey including owls. If you check out bird parks in your area, you should be able to find one within reach so that you can see these amazing birds at close hand. These include:
Ebbw Valley, South Wales:
Bridlington, Yorks:
Ringwood, Hampshire:
Exmoor, Devon:
Jedburgh, Scotland:
Doddington, Kent:
Preston, Lancs:
Risely, Derbyshire:
Market Harborough, Leicestershire:




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