White owls use moonlight to instill terror in their prey

September 4, 2019, 8:29 a.m.
A white-chested barn owl in flight.
Photo: FJAH/Shutterstock

Imagine, if you will, that you're a rodent running a few late-night errands.

Just a lone mouse in the moonlight.

Or so you think.

Suddenly, there's a slight stirring of air; the hair on your tail stands on end.

You turn — and behold, a white owl silhouetted in the moonlight.

It's a sight to freeze anyone in their tracks — which, according to new research, is exactly the point for these masters of moonlight hunting.

White barn owls, a study published this month in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution suggests, may have evolved their unearthly plumage in order to instill terror in their prey.

The research team has been monitoring the same group of Swiss barn owls for more than two decades, tracking everything from their breeding patterns to hunting rituals. As they suspected, they found owls sporting darker plumages had trouble bringing home dinner on a moonlit night.

Even with an owl's unique feather design, which allows them to fly in dead silence, that pesky moon still gives them away to prey.

But unlike their red-chested counterparts, white owls fared just as well on the hunt, moon or no moon.

Now, you might think that when hunting small, alert and very nervous animals at night, the last thing you want to do is wear white — under a full moon, no less.

But it turns out, a white owl bathed in moonlight may just chill the common vole to the bone.

As the team noted, a small rodent's typical defense strategy is to freeze at the whiff of danger. Don't move. Don't breathe. Maybe it won't see you.

"Curiously," the researchers wrote in The Conversation, "On full moon nights and only when facing a white owl instead of a red one, rodents stayed frozen for longer.

"We think voles behave that way when encountering a white owl because they're scared by bright light reflected from the white plumage."

A barn owl hunting in moonlight. Just the sight of a white owl in moonlight caused voles to freeze in their tracks. (Photo: Ernie Janes/Shutterstock)

Barn animals are the most common of their kind, found in all parts of the world, In fact, they operate under no less than 22 aliases, including ghost owl, death owl and hissing owl. As if their names weren't scary enough, they don't even bother with the telltale owl hoot — preferring to make something closer to a long, drawn-out raspy scream.

If there's just one part of the barn owl's body that hasn't evolved for the purpose of scaring the bejesus out of its prey, it's that face.

These owls happen to own some of the most adorable heart-shaped faces in the animal kingdom.

Unless, of course, you see it up close and personal with a full moon at its back.