Why owls have 'flat' faces

July 26, 2014, 1 p.m.
great gray owl

How owls use their face to find food

Owls stand out from other raptors in many ways, from their night time hunting habits to their stealthy silent flight. But one of the most distinguishing physical characteristics is that their faces seem to be flatter than those of hawks, eagles and other raptors. This is somewhat of an optical illusion on our part. An owl’s face isn’t necessarily flatter, but rather it is ringed by dense feathers that make it appear flattened. This is for a good reason — it makes an owl’s face something like a radar dish that helps the bird pick up even the faintest of sounds that a prey animal might be making. Because owls hunt at night, they have specially adapted eyes, but they also need specially adapted ears. So, owls have asymmetrically placed ears, so that one ear picks up sounds about 30 millionths of a second faster than the other. Behind their ears, they have modified, dense feathers packed tightly together forming a ruff around their faces. This has essentially the same effect as when we cup a hand behind our ears to better hear something. The adaptations allow an owl to get the most sound directed into their ears, and it can turn its head until the sound reaches both ears simultaneously, thus pinpointing the exact location of its prey. So while their “flattened” faces make an owl look somewhat cuter or more cartoonish than other raptors, make no mistake that the feature has a deadly effective purpose.

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