Search Nature Watch

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Silent Flight

Eastern Screech-Owl
Owls have fascinated man from time immemorial – to some cultures they are symbols of wisdom, while to others they are harbingers of doom and death.  Adding to the mystique of these creatures is that they are mainly active at night, using their exceptional vision, acute hearing, and silent flight to stealthily hunt down their prey.

Common in Central Texas, the Eastern Screech-Owl is found in wooded suburban and rural areas and readily nests in tree cavities as well as man-made nest boxes.  A small owl 6-10” long with a wingspan of 19-24”, it has feathered ear tufts and is normally gray, brownish-gray, or less commonly reddish-brown.  The Eastern Screech-Owl eats a variety of small animals, and each night consumes from one-quarter to one-third of its own body weight.  It uses a soft trilling call to keep in contact with a mate or family members, and the male’s trill can advertise a nest site when courting a female or signal an arrival at the nest with food.  This owl also has a descending whinny, which is used to defend its territory.  Eastern Screech-Owl pairs are usually monogamous and remain together for life, although they will take a new mate when one dies.  In mid-April, the female lays 3-4 eggs on average, and the downy white owlets emerge from the nest by mid-May.

Great Horned Owl
Also common but much larger at 18-25” long with a wingspan of 40-57”, the Great Horned Owl prefers habitats of secondary-growth woodlands mixed with open meadows.  Often found perching next to an open area and nests in tree hollows, broken off snags, or nests made by other large birds.  It has prominent ear tufts spaced widely on its head, a brownish-gray body with dark barring, and a rusty facial disk edged in black surrounding each of its orange-yellow eyes. The Great Horned Owl has a broad diet of small mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles, and is the only animal the regularly eats skunks.  They have a large repertoire of sounds, but the most common is that of the male’s resonant territorial call ‘hoo-hoo hoooooo hoo-hoo’ that can be heard over several miles through the canyons on a still night. These owls are solitary in nature, only staying with their mate during the nesting season of January and February. Typically 2-4 eggs are laid and incubated solely by the female, until the young start roaming from the nest six to seven weeks later.  

The structure of an owl’s feather is the main reason they can fly so silently.  The leading edge of their primary wing feathers are serrated like a comb, which breaks down the turbulence into smaller, micro-turbulences.  The soft, tattered edges of their secondary feathers allow those small currents of air to pass through them and further reduce the turbulence behind their wings.  In addition, the velvety down feathers found in the wing linings and on their legs further dampen and absorb sound frequencies.  Together, these features allow the owl to greatly reduce the overall noise caused by the turbulence of air flowing over them as they fly.