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PHANTOM OF THE NIGHT

Updated: May 27, 2021


It's late at night in an old barn. Suddenly a loud screech breaks the silence. Ghost? No, it's a Barn Owl or Tyto Alba, which means white owl. And indeed the Barn Owl has a white breast, belly, and white underwing coverts, which is why, when it flies, many may think it's a ghost. However, Barn Owls plumage can range from an eggshell white to a reddish brown. Most of the time a Barn Owl has a creamy offset white breast and belly. Barn Owls in general have black spots on their breast feathers. Again, this can range from little or no spots to heavily spotted. Most often the female Barn Owl is more heavily spotted. The eggshell white breast and belly can be an advantage when hunting as opposed to a rusty brown color. The question is why do Barn Owls colors vary so much. One answer might be that on bright moonlit nights when a Barn Owl with a eggshell white breast is hunting and comes upon a vole or mouse, the rodent will freeze due to the frightening effect of the light reflecting off the white feathers. So why aren't all Barn Owls breast and bellies white if they have more success hunting? This might by due to the fact that the reddish feathers can resist wear much better than the white feathers don't have as much melanin as the reddish ones. Melanin is the pigment that colors the feathers of birds and the skin, hair, and eyes of people. The more melanin the stronger the feather. The reddish owls are also better camouflaged when stalking or roosting. Along with the eerie screech and white plumage the white owl flies completely silent. Most owls have flutings, the fringe along the feathers to enable silent flight, along with a soft fuzz on top of the feather. If the feathers get wet or the flutings get damaged the owl won't be able to fly silently. Barn Owls facial disks are also larger than other owls and in order to pick up slight sounds all owls' ears are placed unevenly. Yep, you heard me right! All owls ears are unevenly placed. One ear is higher than the other. As the Barn Owl flies over a field it turns its head and contracts its facial muscles to pick up any sound from a mouse. Barn Owls also tend to return to the same mate and nest site each year. Remember that the White Owl is a help to farmers who have mouse problems. These excellent mousers can be good to have around.











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