The Barn Owl

By Richard Hoath, Faculty Advisor of The Biology Club

 

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Sometimes it can be truly amazing what the natural world can turn up within the very middle of a sprawling conurbation of 17 million human inhabitants. But if you happen to be on campus at night, take some time out to look up at the night sky and perhaps, if you are very, very lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the ghostly white form of a hunting Barn Owl. I’ve seen one on two occasions here, both times near the basketball court, and Dr. Andy Main helped rescue another that was found tangled in the netting that covered the trees in Fountain Court. It was successfully released.

The Barn Owl Tyto alba is a medium-sized owl, some 36cm long with a 90cm wingspan, the female slightly larger than the male. It is freckled sandy-brown above and, in most races, pure white below. It has a distinctive heart-shaped facial disk and, uniquely amongst Egyptian owl species, dark eyes. Owls have very good binocular vision but very poor peripheral vision. They make up for this in having a neck that can twist an astonishing 270 degrees. While it is true that owls have excellent eyesight and see far better than us in darkness, most prey is located by sound. The facial disk focuses sound to the owl’s sensitive ear openings that are placed asymmetrically. In this way the owl can very accurately home in on its prey even in complete darkness.  Owls also have specially adapted flight feathers enabling them to fly in total silence, all the better to hear their potential prey.

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Our urban Barn Owls will probably be feeding largely on House Rats, House Mice and Cairo Spiny Mice. They swallow their prey whole and then later cough up the indigestible parts such as hair and bones as a pellet. Researchers find these pellets of considerable interest as they not only tell us what the owls are feeding on but can be a major clue in assessing the distribution of small mammal species in particular. Indeed in Australia the Big-eared Hopping Mouse is known solely from remains found in owl pellets. It has never been seen alive! Biology Professors Dr. Jeff Miller with Dr. Hamada collected a great many pellets while working here, not just of Barn Owls but also Long-eared and Little Owls.

In Egypt the Barn Owl is largely confined to the Nile Delta and Valley and North Sinai. However as a species it has one of the widest global ranges of any bird nesting on all continents except Antarctica. It has some very rare relatives though, notably the Madagascar Red Owl and the Congo Bay Owl that has only ever been found twice in its central African forest haunts.

It is uncertain whether the Barn Owl breeds near or on campus but at least until recently there was a pair breeding just off Ibn Zanki in Zamalek. Indeed, for those who like their owl watching more upmarket, Barn Owls can sometimes be seen quartering over the terrace café outside the Marriott. 

Sources

Menkhorst, P. and F. Knight. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.

Mullarney, K. et al. Collins Bird Guide. London: HarperCollins, 1999.

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One Response to “The Barn Owl”

  1. noactive Says:

    The Barn Owl .Thanks for nice post.I added to my twitter.

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