And Fi­nally…

Owls stare, wink and pose out­landishly – but what can we in­fer from these ac­tions? Owl ex­pert Tanja Brandt has in­ter­preted a few par­tic­u­larly eye-catch­ing ex­am­ples for us

World of Knowledge (Australia) - - Contents -

The body lan­guage of owls

The owl swoops ma­jes­ti­cally over its ter­ri­tory, noth­ing es­cap­ing its beady gaze: owls, like the great grey owl (left), feel most at home soar­ing silently through the skies. It might sound like we’re stat­ing the ob­vi­ous, but ac­tu­ally the op­po­site is true: owls – like all birds – in­trin­si­cally dis­like fly­ing and, if at all pos­si­ble, avoid all forms of air­borne ex­er­tion. They don’t want to put on an air show, they just want some­thing to eat. “Even if they feel hun­gry, owls would still pre­fer to raid their sup­ply store than go hunt­ing,” ex­plains owl afi­cionado Tanja Brandt. You see, this fly­ing malarkey is en­ergy sap­ping – if any­thing it will make them even more hun­gry. But this isn’t the only mis­con­cep­tion drawn from the odd be­hav­iour of the grey owl and friends.

Take the chap top right. An owl’s wink is the equiv­a­lent of our hu­man blink re­flex and has noth­ing to do with the sly trans­mis­sion of a spe­cific mes­sage. “Owls just couldn’t do that,” stresses Brandt. Our lit­tle owl, as the genus is called, is much more likely to be ex­tremely re­laxed, and is open­ing its beak nice and wide. Not to squawk at any­body, but to throw up some pel­lets – left­overs from its last meal that it is un­able to di­gest. As this pro­ce­dure is ex­tremely tir­ing, the bird shuts one of its eyes. And would now like to be alone, please.

And no, the owl in the mid­dle pic­ture hasn’t gone into hid­ing. Tanja Brandt ex­plains: “This one is mak­ing full use of its 270-de­gree ro­tat­able head to clean its tail feath­ers. Owls only clean them­selves when they are fully re­laxed.” This greas­ing of the plumage is vi­tal to the birds’ sur­vival – with­out the con­stant, metic­u­lous re­moval of dirt, owls would find their abil­ity to hunt se­ri­ously im­peded. And then the whole slog would have been for noth­ing be­cause we now know that owls aren’t keen on fly­ing.

As for the odd pose struck by the owl on the bot­tom right… well, he may look a bit tipsy but he’s ac­tu­ally show­ing off – this male owl has been in full view of a fe­male for the en­tire day. Af­ter all, it is the mat­ing sea­son, a time when owls con­tort their bod­ies into ever more bizarre shapes. “He looks like he’s about to take off,” says Brandt. But it’s also pos­si­ble that he has just touched down, hav­ing leapt from his hide with folded wings and only spread them mo­ments be­fore he reached the ground. An im­pres­sive feat.

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