Night Wings

By staff January 1, 2003

Florida's common barn owls are found on nearly every continent and go by many names. They're known in some cultures as ghost owls. In others, white owls, or delicate owls-even monkey-faced owls.

Because they dine primarily on rats and mice, they're among the most valuable and beneficial of all birds of prey. A healthy adult eats at least two mice each night, making it almost indispensable to the success of Florida's small farms and rural vegetable gardens.

In North America and Europe, they commonly nest in barns, but they can also live in hollow trees, abandoned buildings, church belfries, or even holes in the ground. Barn owls are nocturnal, so they are rarely seen.

Height-wise, they're not imposing, standing only about 14 inches tall, with an average wing span of three and a half feet. But what they lack in stature they make up for in both behavior and appearance. Their threat displays are especially memorable. An alarmed barn owl, madly bobbing its head and hissing like a miniature steam locomotive, is a sure-fire attention getter, especially in close proximity.

Although it has keen vision, the barn owl hunts by sound rather than sight. Its facial feathers are formed to cup sound waves and funnel them back to its ears. The feathers surround its eyes like a pair of large white-ish discs. The owl's left ear is positioned slightly higher than its right, and is angled down. Its right ear is angled upwards. This slight difference allows it to pinpoint its prey with incredible accuracy, even in absolute darkness.

In flight, the barn owl sometimes emits a raspy, hair-raising shriek, to announce its presence to other birds, or startle its prey. Otherwise it flies in perfect silence, skimming the treetops and swooping low over the meadows and fields-a pale, wandering shadow, listening for the slightest sound.

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