Owls

Natural History

There are 420 birds of prey found worldwide. These include eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, condors, kites and ospreys. Some scientists also include vultures. Maymont is home to several birds of prey, including the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) and barred owl (Strix varia), both of which can be found in Raptor Valley.

Owls are nocturnal (active at night), while other birds of prey are diurnal (active during the daytime). Common characteristics among birds of prey include large, bright eyes, sharp curved beaks, and strong talons. Owls, in particular, have very sensitive hearing and can hear a mouse heart beat in the opposite corner of a room. Owls cannot move their eyes like humans; therefore, in order to see all around they must move their heads. There are 14 vertebrae in their necks (opposed to seven in humans), which allow them to turn their head approximately 270 degrees! Although owls are excellent hunters, their attacks on live prey are unsuccessful nine out of 10 times.

The great horned owl is the largest owl species found in Virginia, with a wingspan of 4.5 feet and standing 25 inches tall. The great horned owl is also one of the largest “eared” owls in America, and it is one of the first birds to nest, laying its eggs as early as late January, when there is still snow on the ground. This owl is highly adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats including forests, deserts, swamps, and even urban areas. A series of low, sonorous, far-carrying “hoots” can be heard from this owl. Both of Maymont’s great horned owls came from Raptor Conservatory in 2006 and are believed to have sustained permanent injuries from cars.

Barred owls regularly call during the daytime, but are most often seen by those who seek them out in their dark retreat, which is usually a thick grove of trees in a lowland forest. These owls can also be found near swamps, lake shores, or ravines, as they prefer to live near a water source. The barred owl lays two to four eggs in an unlined cavity of a hollow tree or in an old crow’s nest. Adults grow to a height of 20 inches and can weigh 1.5 to 2 pounds, which makes them a smaller breed of owl. Maymont’s barred owl arrived in 2004 from the Area Rehabbers Klub (ARK) after being rehabilitated from a suspected car accident, where it lost one eye. Maymont has received permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to possess and exhibit migratory birds.

Fun Facts

  • Owls have excellent night vision – 10 to 100 times better than humans!
  • The great horned owl is one of the most aggressive breeds.
  • Owls are the only birds with “fluffy-edged” flight feathers. The fringed edge enables them to fly silently at night to catch prey.
  • Birds of prey have three eyelids. Hawks close the lower eyelid up, while owls close the upper eyelid down, looking more human-like. The third eyelid, called a nictitating membrane, closes side to side, and is used to clean and moisten the eye.
  • Owls have ears located in a groove where the facial plate starts (where the feathers change on the face), which act as a funnel for sound. One ear is located up high and the other is located down low, allowing the owl to easily triangulate sounds.

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