During last week's Christmas Bird Count, I stood studying a busy bunch of winter sparrows foraging in tall, dense grass. Matter-of-factly, interrupting my concentration, count partner Vivian announced, "There's an owl in that tree cavity."
We were at least 100 yards from said tree, but the little brown jobs in the grass beside me suddenly dropped to last place for my attention. Binoculars up and, bingo, there, snoozing, a barred owl hunched motionless, in studio-perfect lighting. Big. A female.
I could barely breathe.
The most sedentary and territorial of our carnivorous birds, owls habitually nap by day. But by night, their pursuits peak at amazing.
Since they hunt in the dark of night when vision is restricted, then you must hear, and hear well. And owls do. Their ears sit on the sides of the head, one ear a bit higher than the other. That lets owls pinpoint a sound’s source. In addition, the facial disk, that big circle of face feathers, serves to gather sounds and channel them, funnel-like, toward the ears.
But get this: Owls can adjust those feathers to focus their hearing to specific distances. In short, owls can zero in on a rustle and, in total darkness, dive on a mouse scurrying under leaf litter below undergrowth. Amazing, indeed.
So here I was, inching toward the tree, aiming for quiet, knowing full well that to any critter that can detect a mouse running under deep snow, even my most gentle footsteps must sound like a pounding bass drum. Still, I aimed for unobtrusive.
Bird eyes also don’t move in their heads the way ours do. We can move our eyes left to right, up and down, all without moving our heads. Given their fixed eyes, however, birds must turn their heads. Still, contrary to myth, owls can't turn their heads 360 degrees; they can, however, manage 270 degrees— quite a swivel.
Because many bird eyes sit on the sides of their heads, they lack our binocular vision. Owls, though, have front-facing eyes, like humans. While they lose the peripheral vision that some birds have, owls gain that all-important depth perception—better for snaring prey on silent wing.
As I watched this lovely sleepy owl, I thought about her power, her stamina, her literally superhuman traits. She might be defending territory between 200 and 900 acres, depending on the abundance of her favorite foods: mice, voles, shrews, small amphibians and invertebrates, reptiles, birds, even rabbits and squirrels.
Since she may live 10 years, she likely has become a fixture in her own neighborhood—and ours—protecting her year-round territory.
She remained motionless for the camera, allowing me to breathe again, knowing I would have a forever image by which to relive a thrilling encounter. Thanks, Vivian!