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Things That (Don’t) Go Bump in the Night – Owls (GMHDRNC)

TopicWildlife - Adaptations
Wildlife - Birds
Owls are plentiful in Arkansas. See examples of live owls and learn about their special ability to hunt in the night.
Grade LevelK - 12
Recommended SettingIndoor or outdoor classroom
LocationGovernor Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center, Pine Bluff
Education Program Coordinator, 870-534-0011
Duration45 minutes - 1 hour
Suggested Number of Participants10 - 30
  • Learn about the physical characteristics of owls
  • Learn the behavioral specializations of owls.
  • Understand the importance of raptors to the ecosystem.
Key Terms*


Birds of prey


Food chain


Sexual dimorphism



Educational animal




Owls (strigiformes) are considered birds of prey or raptors because they are carnivorous and use their powerful feet and sharp talons to capture prey. Raptors have sometimes been represented as heartless killers. However, they are rare and important birds, protected by federal and state laws. It is illegal to kill or possess any part of a raptor without the proper federal permit. Most raptors have strong feet, sharp talons, excellent vision and sexual dimorphism, with female birds being 25 percent to 35 percent larger.

  1. Begin by discussing the physical adaptations of owls that help them survive.
    • Owls are generally nocturnal and have several characteristics that help them survive. Owls use their large eyes to locate prey at night. In fact, if human eyes were similarly proportioned, they would be softball-sized. Also, unlike human eyes, owl eyes are fixed in the socket so they must turn their heads to see. Humans can turn their heads 180 degrees, but owls can rotate theirs 270 degrees! They have twice as many vertebrae in their neck as giraffes – 14 to seven.
    • Owl ears are just as important for feeding. In fact, if it were too dark to see, owls could still locate their food just by listening. Owls have flat facial discs that direct more sound to their ears, acting like a satellite dish. Their ears are also in different spots with one always higher and farther back on their heads. These features help owls hone in on an animal even when it is hidden.
    • Once the prey is located, owls use their powerful feet and talons to grab their prey. But to sneak up on it in the middle of a quiet night, these birds rely on fringed feathers for silent flight. Using their zygodactylous toes, they can tear their prey and grasp onto branches. They will catch rodents like mice and, depending on the size of the bird, anything from moths to rabbits can be torn apart with their hooked beaks. Owls cannot smell well; for example, the great horned owl is one of the only known predators of the skunk.
  2. Present the educational animals. This can also be done throughout the discussion as a visual aid.
  3. Answer any questions.
  • What does zygodactylous mean?
  • How do owls fly silently?
  • What features help owls capture prey?

Asymmetrical – not identical on both sides of a central line


Bird of prey – flesh-eating birds such as eagles, hawks, kites, vultures, falcons and owls which have sharp, downwardly curved beaks, talons and, usually, soaring flight


Carnivorous – an animal that eats flesh


Food chain – feeding order in an ecological community that passes food energy from one organism to another as each consumes a lower member and in turn is preyed upon by a higher member


Nocturnal – active at night (as opposed to diurnal)


Sexual Dimorphism – physical differences between a male and female in the same species other than differences in sex organs; includes differences in size, color or body structure


Zygodactylous (of a bird) – having the toes of each foot arranged in pairs, with two toes in front and two behind