Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Tytonidae An owl is any of some 200+ species of solitary nocturnal birds of prey in the order Strigiformes. Owls mostly hunt small mammals, insects, and other birds, though a few species specialize in hunting fish. They are found on all the Earth's land except for Antarctica, most of Greenland, and some remote islands.
Owls have large forward-facing eyes and ears, a hawk-like beak, and a conspicuous circle of feathers around each eye called the facial disk. Although owls have binocular vision, their large eyes are fixed in their sockets, and they must turn their entire heads to change views.
Owls are far-sighted, and are unable to clearly see anything within a few inches of their eyes. However, their vision, particularly in low light, is excellent.
Many owls can also hunt by sound in total darkness. The facial disc helps to funnel the sound of rodents to their ears, which are widely spaced and, in some species, placed asymmetrically, for better directional location.
Despite their appearance, owls are more closely related to whippoorwills and other nightjars or Caprimulgiformes than to hawks and other diurnal predators (see Falconiformes). Some taxonomists place the nightjars in the same order as owls, as in the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy.
Owls' powerful clawed feet and sharp beak let them tear their prey to pieces before eating. Their muffled wings and dull feathers allow them to fly almost silently and unseen. Scientists studying the diets of owls are helped by its habit of disgorging the indigestible parts of their diet, bones, scales, and fur in pellet form. These "owl pellets" are often sold by companies to schools to be dissected by students as a lesson in biology and ecology, because they are plentiful and easy to interpret.
Owl eggs are white and almost spherical, and range in number from a few to a dozen in some owls. Their nests are crudely built and may be in trees, underground burrows or barns and caves.
A grouping of Owls is called a Parliament.
- ORDER STRIGIFORMES
Myth and lore
Owls are traditionally associated with wisdom and with the goddess Athena, although crows, rooks and many other common birds are more intelligent. The Ancient Egyptians made a representation of an owl into their hieroglyph for "m", although they would often draw this hieroglyph with its legs broken to keep the bird of prey from coming to life and attacking.
In Japanese culture, the bird is a symbol of death and seeing one is considered a bad omen. The same is true in Italian and Romanian culture, where the howling of an owl predicts the death of somebody living in the neighbourhood, as the howling of the owl is likened to a mourning. The Romans considered them funerary birds, for their nocturnal activity and having their nests in inaccessible places, therefore, seeing an owl at daytime was considered a bad omen. Their vampiric strix was in part based on the owl. The taboo surrounding owls in Hopi culture regards them as a dirty and ominous creature.
- Animal Diversity Web Page: Owls
- Smithsonian Snowy Owl Info
- Australian Owls and Frogmouths
- Owls of the World
- North American Owls: Biology and Natural History by Paul A. Johnsgard, ISBN 1560987243, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997
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