The Silent Owl
Humming, buzzing, squawking, the forest is always filled with sounds. Step by step, slowly, taking care to avoid any sudden movements, you even try to silence your breathing. There is a furry tail in the distance sticking out from behind that low scrub. What body is that tail connected to? A fox? A coyote? If only you could get a few steps closer! Still you remember to be silent.
You only step lightly on rocks and pure earth. Avoiding any crunching leaves or snapping sticks. The creature is finally coming into view! Just one more step, and you will see its furry face, you can boast about how lucky you were to find this little mammal! You can see its ears now, brownish and furry, they are sticking straight up from behind the scrub. Suddenly the tail points straight out too, you are surprised and try to steady yourself by grabbing a nearby branch.
Can you tell what is looking at you from behind these bushes? Answer is at the end!
Your hand grazes a loose piece of bark, and you watch in horror as it drops to the floor. The bark hits the dirt and makes the faintest of noises. You look up, and the creature has vanished from behind the scrub. It heard your, not so sneaky approach, and hightailed it out of there. You may never know what kind of animal that was, but I am sure it knows you. It’s probably watching, giggling in its own language, as you curse the piece of bark you knocked from the tree.
We have been living in the loud human society for so long now. We have escaped the food chain, and have no predators, and can purchase our meals nicely wrapped from the supermarket. Our senses are incredibly dulled. We can barely hear, or smell anything, and sometimes can’t even see what is right in front of us.
Still living as a part of nature, the animals outclass us in their sensory abilities. They hear us coming from a mile away, and smell our distinct city odor as soon as we get out of the car. They can see us at night as we hold our flashlights with trembling hands. For being one of the biggest land mammals, and being at the top of the food chain, we really are fearful of everything. It seems to me that this fear comes from our lack of sensory ability, we fear the darkness, the unknown.
Coyote prowling at night captured on wildlife camera
It is in that darkness that many of these animals with heightened senses thrive. One of California's largest owls is the Great Horned Owl, or Bubo virginianus, and its sensory ability allows it to hunt in pitch darkness. These owls have an adaptation that helped inspire our own satellite design. The owl's eyes are set inside of wide cone-shaped discs. and these discs act similarly to the satellites we use to receive electronic signals.
Sound, and the wavelengths that transmit radio or TV signals travel through the air in the same fashion. They are bits of energy oscillating around a main point and the frequency of their movement defines the signal they transmit. The satellites and the discs around the owl's eyes grab these signals and pull them to the receiver, which in one instance, sends the signal to your TV, or in the owl's case, funnels the sound straight to its ears.
Not only can the owls hear even the most minute rustle, they can even locate via sound. Although their huge eyes are adapted to see in the darkest of night, there are still limitations to what they can see. That way, using sound to find prey is their backup strategy, not only hearing it, but being able to navigate towards the rustle of a mouse in the leaves, only using their hearing.
Owls have another deadly adaptation. Deadly if you are a small rodent! Most mice and other night time creatures that an owl would like to eat, also have incredibly good hearing. Rivaling that of the owls. So while the owl can locate its prey through sound, the prey can locate the predator the same way. The adaptation that makes owls a fearsome predator is known as silent flight.
The owls wings are made up of specialized feathers that are similar to the down in your comforter. These feathers are so soft that they barely make any disturbance in the air during flight and even carrying a large owl does not make any noise whatsoever. This way an owl can sneak up on its prey in complete silence, and never fail to make a kill.
I was lucky the other day to witness one of these silent murders. As I drove home through the Topanga forest, something giant swooped straight past my windshield. I watched as a great horned owl landed on the side of the road across from me. I stopped my car in the middle of the road and watched. The owl stood there looking victorious for a few moments.
Then lights flashed around the corner behind me and I had to press on the gas. The lights startled the owl too, and he flew up from the ground. In his talons was a very unlucky mouse. I hope that one day you can get to see one of these brilliant creatures silently flying by. If you have, let us know about it in the comments below! Also last thing, make sure that if you ever see a predatory bird on the ground, that you watch it closely, because nine times out of ten, it will have just caught some prey.
If you look closely at the second picture you will see a bobcat peering out at you.
Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.