Ancient aerial hunters: Program teaches kids about owls

Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2002

TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) -- Linda Holden has it easy when it comes to making second-graders' eyes bug out. She simply tells them that their eyes would be as big as softballs if they had eyes as big as owls' in proportion to their bodies.

''Oooooh,'' said Nathan Knissch, as he cocked his head to scrutinize a great horned owl named Ollie and a Northern saw-whet named Beau who appeared to be looking just as quizzically at him.

Owls don't exude the glamour or snare the attention that bald eagles and peregrine falcons do. But listen to Holden bring them to life and they sound like prime candidates for ''Ripley's Believe It Or Not.''

Holden gave a hoot for owls recently in a show and tell for about 500 second- and third-graders at Hemingway, Hailey, Bellevue and Carey schools. Hers was one of 10 programs offered this spring as part of an expanded Environmental Education Outreach program by Ketchum's Environmental Resource Center.

The program brings biologists, naturalists, live animals and artifacts into the classroom to capture children's attention and imagination in ways book reading never could, said coordinator Jeanne Liston.

Owls are very ancient, highly evolved fierce predators who do their hunting under the guise of darkness and use their mottled gray, brown and black feathers as camouflage during the day. It's thought that owls can turn their head all the way around-like something out of ''The Exorcist'' -- to hone in on what they want to see, said Holden, executive director of the Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary near McCall. But that's not really true. Owls can, however, twist their heads 275 degrees, three-fourths of the way around or twice as far as humans. They can do this because they have 14 vertebrae in their neck versus the seven vertebrae bones humans have.

While their eyes may be big, there are other body parts on owls that are even more amazing. Their hearing, for instance. Owls' feathered faces draw in sound like a satellite dish, allowing them to hear a mouse squeak a half-mile away. Great horned owl Ollie's ears are asymmetrical -- one high on his head, the other down around the chin area -- so he can triangulate sound to figure out precisely where a vole is.

Blindfolded owls have flown directly to a mouse that squeaked two football fields away. Once they target prey, their long sharp talons have the grip second only to that of an eagle. But those aren't the only attributes that make them such great hunters.

They're the only bird that can fly silently. Owls' feathers are very soft, Holden said, passing around an owl feather that felt like a cotton baby diaper next to the more burlap-like texture of the hawk's wing.

The softness deadens the sound as they fly. And their serrated feathers reduce wind resistance, further dampening sound.

What's more, the smallness of the owls' bodies contrasted to their big wings means the owls don't have to flap very much in flight. In contrast with the constantly flapping hummingbird, owls flap a couple of times and glide.

''Indians used to call owl feathers 'evil feathers' because they could sneak up on you and you'd never know what hit,'' Holden said.

Owls have the distinction of being the oldest bird we have a complete fossil record for, Holden said. On second thought, make that 80 million years, the longest fossil record of any mammal going. ''They used to eat horses when horses were smaller. We can tell from 60 million-year-old owl pellets in Wyoming, which contained little horse bones,'' Holden said.

While great hunters, owls are not so good on the home hearth -- at least, not when it comes to building homes. Big owls like Ollie steal nests from magpies and ravens. Smaller owls take up residence in woodpecker holes. Others, like the barn owls and screech owls, hang out in old buildings and barns because they don't know how to build nests.

Man would have it a lot rougher if it weren't for owls, Holden said.

One small saw-whet owl like Beau can eat 10,000 moths, beetles and other insects in a single summer, lessening the ravages of grasshoppers and locusts on farmers' fields. Great-horned owls like Ollie eat snakes, skunks, gophers and rabbits.

And a medium-sized owl like a barn owl eats 12 mice a day. ''That's nearly 4,500 mice you have to eat every year if you don't have owls,'' Holden told the kids.

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