Barn owls: Ghost hunter of the night

In a dark, moonless sky, in the quiet of the deep night, a silent predator glides through the air. Suddenly, a rustle of leaves gives away a mouse, and the barn owl, tuned to the tiniest sound, with vision 100 times stronger than ours, dives accurately through brush to scoop up its prey.

By dawn the deadly hunters are resting safely in their roosts, which could be a tree hollow or cave, or maybe even your barn. The ghostly barn owl, marked by a white, heart-shaped face and deep-set black eyes, lives on every continent except Antarctica, as well as many islands. They can live in almost any environment, but prefer open woodland to dense forest. Their lifespan is short - between one to two years.

Their freaky look, amazing hunting abilities, and propensity to roost in human structures, have earned them quite a few nicknames: Demon Owl, Ghost Owl, Death Owl, Church Owl, and Monkey-faced Owl. It's also been called a Hissing Owl, because it makes a loud, rasping hiss instead of a hoot.

Barn owls live all over Texas. Besides the unique, white face and lack of ear tufts, the barn owlhasadark

Barn owls' eyes are locked looking forward. Barn owls' eyes are locked looking forward. brown back and pale front with spots. They can get 15 to 20 inches tall, with wingspans almost as wide. Both sexes are about the same size. The females, however, are actually showier than the

males. Scientists believe that the more heavily spotted females may be more resistant to parasites and diseases.

The Barn Owl's main food is rodents. So much so, that a large rodent outbreak will cause the owls to dramatically increase their numbers. The owls will also eat insects, fish, birds, and small mammals. The owl is specifically designed to be a night hunter. Its light body, long wingspan, and velvety feathers deaden the sound of the wind as it moves along the wings. They have binocular vision, but their eyes are locked looking forward. Because they can't move their eyes separate from their heads, owls can turn their heads 270 degrees, from front to back. Creepy, but effective.

Owls have a translucent membrane that closes to protect the eye, particularly when the owl is flying through brush after its prey. Even their beaks have evolved to point downward to keep from blocking their line of sight.

The Barn Owl's hearing is highly sensitive. Its face is formed by stiff feathers that amplify sound. Their ears, which are behind the edges of the eyes, are not symmetrical, making it easier for them to locate prey in the dark. This allows them to determine how long it takes sound to reach each ear, providing another dimension of sound with which to pinpoint prey.

They are attuned to highfrequency sounds, like rodent squeaks, so they can find the animal if it rustles leaves or squeaks.

Although they can mate yearround, barn owls typically mate twice a year. They nest almost anywhere, making no effort to build a nest, or line it if they take one over from another bird. The female lays from 5 to 7 eggs every 2 to 3 days. Eggs hatch in 32 to 34 days. The down-covered babies are called "owlets."

The owlets are ravenous, and parents will hunt during the day to feed them. They leave the nest in 50 to 55 days, but remain near their parents for about a week to learn how to hunt. In 10 months they will be ready to breed.

A barn owl enjoys living in man-made bird boxes. This link provides the dimensions for the barn owl's box, as well as other bird boxes: http://www.tpwd. introducing_birds/ bird_houses/.

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2009-10-08 digital edition

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