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Up close with a (dead) barn owl


One of the good things about people know I collect bones is that I have been lucky enough to havebeen given a lot of amazing things, like the leopard, otter and monk fish skulls. I've even had an 80 year old lady drive all the way up from England to give me some skulls !

About a week ago, I got an email from Mr. Greenhill, who I first met when I did a falconry course and he was the instructor, and who later came to a book talk I gave. He said he had found a barn owl by the side of the A9, and asked me if I would like it. I agreed, of course, and he came round to drop it off in the week ! Here's is what I found.

I prefer to see barn owls like this;

So it's sad to see one like this:

It was wrapped in a sandwich bag, and the body was intact, although I think it took a blow over the shoulders and back of the head. I had to take care when opening it up. My brothers, Sam (right) and Harry (left), seemed to be quite interested as well.

Important: I would always recommend people wear gloves for this, but I had run out !

It was really light when I took it out the bag. The whole body had stiffened up in the cold, and it might have also have been rigor mortis, so it was quite hard to fold the wings and claws out. The body was slightly speckled, but not enough to know whether it was male (which are less speckled) or female. My best guess is that it was a male, which is slightly smaller than the females.

Barn owls have very beautiful feathers, with a delicate pattern on the top, then almost pure white on the underneath.

The claws

Owls are killers.

I've seen a lot of bird claws, and the owl's is one of the longest in proportion to the feet, and sharpest. These would do a lot of damage to anything they swooped upon.

My dad think that rigor mortis caused the claws to stiffen up. It was next to impossible to get the claws out straight. They were covered with these light hairs, but I can't find what purpose the hairs have.

The barn owl has very long legs, which allow it to pick up small prey without getting dangerously close to the ground.

The wings

Barn owls are not just killers:  they are silent killers. The wings are not massive, but they are large and broad in proportion to the small body, which means they can glide silently quite far and slowly without having to flap. 

This owl looks truly amazing with its wings spread out (even though it took all my strength to do it !)

If you look VERY closely, the primary feathers have these bristles on the end. This is to make them fly silently because of the way they break up the air hitting the edge of the wing which you need need if you're trying to sneak up to a vole or mouse at night.

The face

Unlike almost other animal I can think of, the shape of the owl's head is nothing like the shape of its skull, because it covered in thick feathers which give a shape a bit like a satellite dish, and a bit like a heart, with a "nose" in the middle. It's the opposite of being streamlined and aerodynamic, because it collects sounds and directs them to the ears. It's sound is so good that it can find prey by sound alone.

Looking very carefully under I found one of its huge ears. The ears on each side are at different heights, to help them locate prey more accurately.

So I have mixed feelings. This is an amazing bird, one I've never seen in the wild, so it's great to see it up close, but terribly sad to see it like this. But it will be interesting to see the skeleton, and I'm using a new method to let it decompose. I'll have to see how it works !

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Jo said...

Thanks Jake, and to Mr Greenhill, too, for sending the owl. I was fascinated by the post. The claws were especially interesting. The hair/feathers on the claws look like dinosaur feathers which some palaeontologists think were grown for warmth. They don't look like they'd keep bird feet especially warm, though.

Then again, some men have hairy toes... Wikipedia says this toe (and body) hair is Androgenic hair and "serves to extend the sense of touch beyond the surface of the skin... detecting air movements as well as hair displacement from contact by insects or objects" I wonder if that's what the owl claw feathers do? Do any of your readers know?

Ric said...

A new method for decomposition, eh? Hmm... keep us posted! Another very good blog, by the way.

Psydrache said...

Owls are so fascinating and beautiful. Especially the barn owl and the eagle owl are my favourites. Sadly I never have seen one in the wild so far. Not even a death one.
I'm looking forward to read about your new decomposition method :)

Jake said...

The sensing movement or wind sounds the most likely !

Jake said...

Ha, Ben taught it me ages ago !

Jake said...

I'm going to keep it a secret !

sedruff said...

Wow, thanks for that awesome post, Jake. I wonder how the owl could've died. It seems peculiar for an owl to be hit by a car, since owls fly, and also if it was roadkill, it seems like it would have been squished. But I also could be crazy.
Also, I've never really thought about what an owl ear looks like. Funny that it's a hole in the side of the owl's head.
Keep being awesome!

elise a. miller said...

Hi Jake, I love your blog and have already learned so much from it. I found a dead eastern screech owl in my yard in Pennsylvania the other day and took your advice based on the chart you posted. It's currently in my back yard under a terra cotta pot with a little hole in the top. I'm hoping it will decompose nicely with nature's help. Do you think it will take about a year? Will wet ground underneath harm or help? I could put it on the concrete with the pot on top but something tells me that it will decompose faster set on the ground. thank you for your wonderful blog!

Jake said...

Depends on the temperature, but probably not more than a few months.

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