Halloween is nearly upon us and owls, those yellow-eyed denizens of the night, have long been associated with Halloween, perhaps because they are nocturnal and hunt under cover of darkness, or the fact that they can fly up right next to you before you even know they are there. But even though owls, along with black cats and evil spirits, are associated with our yearly spookiness, owls have a lot of great things to teach us about sight, hearing, and the technology of silent flight.
Last October we wrote about the special type of DNA in owl eyes that may supercharge their night vision. There are many different things about owl eyes that make them so special. Part of what makes their eyes so unusual is their size. Their large eyes, which can weigh up to 5% of their body weight, allow their pupils to expand, which lets much more light for night hunting. Just like humans, eyesight varies from owl to owl. And different owl species have different capabilities. For instance, the Tawny Owl can see two to three times farther than humans can. Owl eyes, which face forward, allow them to see an object with both eyes at the same time so they see in three dimensions (height, width, and depth). Studying owls’ eyes and vision is helping us to understand different aspects of our own sight.
Unlike humans, owls never lose their hearing. Their ears specialize in high frequencies – the range humans and other mammals usually lose. Owls, along with some other species that have inner-ear-cell regeneration. Mammals, like us, do not have this ability. However, it is believed that humans may have a genetic “switch” for inner ear cell regeneration, but that it’s turned off. There is ongoing research to “switch it on.” Studying owl hearing may help with this.
The structure of owl wings gives them the ability to fly in near silence. The large surface area helps them “float” without as much flapping. However, the main reason is the design of their feathers. The leading edges of their primary feathers are serrated like a comb. This cuts down on the turbulence caused by flying. The turbulence often caused by a bird flying is broken down into what is referred to as micro-turbulence. The secondary feathers, which are made up of soft fringes, help reduce the turbulence behind their wings.3
Through studying owl flight, researchers are working to solve the puzzle of silent flight, which could be applied to everything form fans and turbines to airplanes and other technologies. There are already turbines produced (Dino Tails) that have combs directly inspired by the owl wing.
There is no doubt that owls have a lot to teach us.
Habitat loss and fragmentation are contributing to many owl species becoming endangered. Owls (as well as hawks) are protected under federal law.
If you or a loved one needs help restoring the gift of sight or hearing, please contact LSH at 1-800-647-6638 or email LSH.