Hunting in Plain Sight

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According to a recent article in the New York Times, researchers of Barn Owls have noticed a surprising hunting result for certain members of the species. Barn Owls are a globally distributed species, with some individuals exhibiting a reddish-brown color, while other members are white. For a nocturnal hunter, you might predict that being all white would make it difficult to sneak up on prey, especially on nights when the moon is full. That's the hypothesis put forth by researchers Luis M. San-Jose and Alexandre Roulin. Surprisingly what the researchers found was the opposite!

A vole is a mouse-like rodent that is a favorite food source of owls.

A vole is a mouse-like rodent that is a favorite food source of owls.

Rather than making an escape, voles were frozen on the spot, hoping that remaining still would help them to survive. Instead of just freezing, the voles would stay still for 5 additional seconds when white owls were the ones coming in for the kill. This makes a significant difference in hunting for white morph owls- more time to make a kill often means a higher success rate.

Interestingly, the proportion of males with a bright white coloring is higher than that of females. These males seem to be more frequently chosen by females as mates. This makes sense, because when owlets need to be fed, it's more often the male making the hunting trips. So why are there any reddish-brown Barn Owls left? It may have to do with camouflage to protect the young, avoiding harassment from other birds, or behaviors and scenarios that have yet to be observed.

-Amanda Schuster, Environmental Educator