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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Owls are a fascinating and mysterious group of wild birds

Represented by two avian families, some 135 species of owls can be found hiding, hunting and hooting throughout the world, including 12 species here in Minnesota alone.

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Barred owls are one of the most common species of owls in Minnesota.
Contributed / Pixabay

Among the most fascinating and mysterious groups of wild birds are the many species of owls.

Occurring nearly everywhere worldwide, the only place owls don’t exist is Antarctica. Represented by two avian families, some 135 species of owls can be found hiding, hunting and hooting throughout the world, including 12 species here in Minnesota alone.

The Land of 10,000 Lakes is inhabited by great horned, long-eared, short-eared, barred, burrowing, great gray, northern hawk, eastern screech, northern saw-whet, boreal, snowy and barn owls.

Some species occur here intermittently, like great gray, northern hawk and snowy owls, while others, like barn and burrowing owls, have a limited range in Minnesota.

Most owls are nocturnal and they’re all birds of prey. Some, such as short-eared owls, are diurnal and twilight hunters. But for most species of owls, twilight and nighttime is the time of activity.


Replacing eagles, hawks and falcons as top avian predators of the daylight hours, owls are true masters of darkness and come equipped with adaptations unmatched in predatory birds.

For starters, owls' vision is extraordinarily acute. Like us, owls have binocular vision. All this means is that an object can be seen with both eyes at the same time. But that’s where the similarity essentially stops. Owl eyes are very large. Both the outer portions of the eye and the pupil are large too.

The iris (a membrane between the cornea and lens) controls the pupil’s size.

On particularly dark nights an owl’s pupils are at their largest, which in turn allows the maximum amount of light to enter into the eye. Special light-sensitive cells are especially abundant, more so than color-sensitive cells that contribute to an owl's amazing ability to see in the dark.

Unlike other animals, owls’ eyes are immobile or fixed within their eye sockets. An owl cannot move their eyes. However, they can move their heads nearly completely around, about 270 degrees.

This is possible because of its long neck and a high number of vertebra (14). For comparison, we have just seven vertebrae. And owls also have a wide field of view, but somewhat less than our own.

Of course, it is more than just eyes that work to make the owl such an efficient nighttime predator.

Acute hearing and pronounced facial disks pinpoint the location and reflect sounds, respectively, of small rodents dozens of feet away; soft feathers provide a silent flight for capturing prey undetected; and four long and sharp talons on each foot for holding onto prey once caught, all work in unison, with their eyes, in outfitting these incredible birds of prey.


Minnesota owls hunt prey from as small as insects and frogs to as large as rabbits and skunks. Small prey, such as mice and voles, are swallowed whole, bones and all. Larger prey is consumed in chunks that are torn from the carcass by using their hooked beaks.

And since an owl's digestive system cannot process bones and fur, these parts are regurgitated in scat-like pellet form and can often be found beneath favorite roosting sites and nest trees.

These owl pellets provide the interested observer an opportunity to learn what the bird was feeding on and where it may be living.

A few nights ago, while enjoying a snowshoe hike in the relative warmth of springtime, a nearby barred owl vocalized loudly its well-known “who-cooks-for-you” call.

Stopping to listen to this unique and stirring wild sound, I was delighted when another barred owl answered the first bird. And for a while, the two exchanged calls in a most interesting cacophony of vocalizations. Such a joy!

Owls are remarkably adapted for stealth in finding and capturing prey. Silent flyers, they are extremely patient as they watch and listen for prey, few predators can match the weaponry of these incredible and beautiful birds of prey, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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