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What Makes Owls So Quiet and So Deadly? | Deep Look

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Published on Oct 27, 2015

It's stealth, not speed that makes owls such exceptional hunters. Zoom way in on their phenomenal feathers to see what makes them whisper-quiet.

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DEEP LOOK: a new ultra-HD (4K) short video series created by KQED San Francisco and presented by PBS Digital Studios. See the unseen at the very edge of our visible world. Get a new perspective on our place in the universe and meet extraordinary new friends. Explore big scientific mysteries by going incredibly small.

--- How do owls hunt silently?

When birds flap their wings it creates turbulences in the air as it rushes over their wings. In general, the larger a bird is and the faster it flies, the larger the turbulence created and that means more sound.

The feathers at the leading edge of an owl’s wings have an unusual serrated appearance, referred to as a comb or fringe. The tiny hooked projections stick out and break up the wind as it flows over the owl’s wings reducing the size and sound of the turbulences.

Owl feathers go one step further to control sound. When viewed up-close, owl feathers appear velvety. The furry texture absorbs and dampens sound like a sound blanket. It also allows the feathers to quietly slide past each other in flight, reducing rusting sounds.

--- Why do owls hunt at night?

Owls belong to a group called raptors which also so includes with hawks, eagles and falcons. Most of these birds of prey hunt during the day and rely on. But unlike most other raptors, the roughly 200 species of owl are generally nocturnal while others are crepuscular, meaning that they’re active around dawn and dusk.

They have extremely powerful low-light vision, and finely tuned hearing which allows them to locate the source of even the smallest sound. Owls simply hide and wait for their prey to betray its own location. As ambush hunters, owls tend to rely on surprise more often than their ability to give chase.

--- Why do owls hoot?

With Halloween around the corner, you might have noticed a familiar sound in the night. It’s mating season for owls and the sound of their hooting fills the darkness.

According to Chris Clark, an an assistant professor of biology at UC Riverside,, “The reason why owls are getting ready to breed right now in the late fall is because they breed earlier than most birds. The bigger the bird the longer it takes for them to incubate their eggs and for the nestlings to hatch out and or the fledglings to leave the nest. Owls try to breed really early because they want their babies to be leaving the nest and practicing hunting right when there are lots of baby animals around like baby rabbits that are easy prey.”

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Funding for Deep Look is provided in part by PBS Digital Studios and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Deep Look is a project of KQED Science, which is supported by HopeLab, The David B. Gold Foundation; S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation; The Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation; The Vadasz Family Foundation; Smart Family Foundation and the members of KQED.
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