You’ve recently started dating someone and you’re looking to impress them. You fancy yourself a bit of a connoisseur of fun facts, so you take them to your local coffee shop’s weekly trivia night.
You’re confident, your self-proclaimed nickname is “the Michael Jordan of trivia competitions.” Your date is going to be so impressed.
The host for the night asks the first question: “What do Elmer Fudd and owls have in common?” You panic, bird facts are the only weak spot in your trivia game and you should have known to study up on owls before tonight.
You look to your date who smiles and says, “They both hunt rabbits.” They’re correct, and you’re in love.
Like Elmer Fudd, the famous antagonist to Bugs Bunny, owls hunt and eat rabbits, but unlike Elmer Fudd, owls are quite good at it. Here is why:
Owl’s are Predators
Despite what most owls’ naturally cute appearance might suggest, owls find themselves quite high on the food chain.
Like all birds, owls are most vulnerable to predators when they are young. Owl eggs and baby owls are commonly predated by mid-sized, carnivorous animals such as foxes, wildcats, and raccoons, but they are also vulnerable to predation from large birds such as eagles, hawks, or even other owls.
However, once they reach maturity, they have few natural predators. In fact, mature owls are some of the primary predators in the ecosystems they inhabit.
Owls’ diets are exclusively carnivorous. The specifics of each owl’s diet differ depending on their size, but all owls prey on small animals, including rabbits, as primary food sources.
However, owls are not picky and will eat almost anything that they are able to catch and kill. There are even species of owls whose diet largely consists of fish.
But why are owls such effective predators in their ecosystems?
Owls are Excellent Hunters
Have you ever seen an athlete that seems as though they were designed in a lab to have all the physical attributes needed to excel at the sport they compete in?
Athletes like Michael Phelps, whose long arms and short powerful legs give him a significant genetic advantage over the competition, or Lebron James, who is 6’9″, yet can run and jump as fast and high as anyone, are examples of this phenomenon.
Owls are like these athletes. Their physical features have evolved to make them incredibly efficient and effective hunters.
Owls are predominantly nocturnal, so they do the vast majority of their hunting at night. Darkness benefits owls because they rely on stealth and surprise while hunting their prey.
Owls’ feathers, eyes, talons, ears, and beaks, all work together genetically to make the owl the ultimate stealth predator.
Owls’ feathers are serrated and larger than the average bird. The shape of the owls’ feathers cuts down on wind resistance by increasing the aerodynamics of its flight pattern.
Their flight feathers are covered in velvety fibers that absorb noise. These fibers cause owls to make little to no noise when flying, allowing them to sneak up on prey quickly and silently.
There are some drawbacks to these fibers. They are not waterproof and prohibit owls from hunting in the rain and make them vulnerable to drowning when their ecosystem floods.
At first glance, an owl’s ears may look like a deformity. But the reality is, the unique characteristic of owls’ ears gives them the ability to locate prey by sound with incredible accuracy.
The reason an owl’s ears may seem like a deformity at first glance is because they are asymmetrical, meaning they are located in different spots on each side of the head. Picture sloth from The Goonies combined with the Predator.
The asymmetry of their ears allows them to locate the direction of prey by the minuscule difference in time it takes for the sound to reach each ear.
This process is aided by the shape of an owl’s face. Owls’ faces are shaped in such a way that they funnel sound into their ears.
Owls combine their incredible hearing with precise night vision to locate small prey even from large distances.
Arguably the most distinct feature of the owl is their eyes. They have eyes that would make Gollum from Lord of the Rings jealous.
Interestingly, the size and shape of owls’ eyes require them to be locked in place inside their skulls, meaning they cannot move their eyes. To compensate for this, owls simply swivel their heads.
Owls have the ability to swivel their heads around 270 degrees. You don’t need eyes in the back of your head if you can turn your head completely around like ghosts in a horror movie.
Their large eyes are specifically evolved to help them see long distances in the dark. In fact, all owls are far-sighted, which means that if human beings had eyes like owls, we would all need glasses to see anything close.
But their eyes are valuable tools in their hunts because they can spot a rabbit in a field in the dark from a long way away, and swoop in and grab it with their talons.
Speaking of talons…
Owls use their talons to pluck their prey from the ground with ease.
Their talons are incredibly strong and sharp. The Great Horned Owl can use its talons to carry something that is up to four times its own weight.
That is equivalent to the average man being able to carry an adult Moose. Great Horned Owls can hunt adult rabbits and even hares with ease because of this incredible strength.
This absurd strength allows owls to crush and kill their prey the moment they grasp them. Which, let’s be honest, sounds like a wildly unpleasant way to go.
Owls finish the job with beaks that have evolved to seem designed by an engineer.
Owls’ beaks are short, powerful, curved, overlapping, and sharp. The shape of their beaks allows them to easily tear through the flesh of their prey when they aren’t just eating them whole.
The curved shape also keeps their beaks out of their line of vision, so they no way intrude on the owl’s ability to locate their prey.
All of these qualities combine to create a predator that is perfectly suited for nocturnal hunting. Combine their genetic advantages with their willingness to eat any animal they can hunt and kill, and it spells out terrible news for any rabbits or other small animals that share an ecosystem with owls.
How to Protect Your Pet Rabbit
Now if you have a pet rabbit and live in an area that is known to have owls, don’t fret. There are simple ways to protect your beloved pet from the local owls.
Owls hunt by patiently observing open areas until they see something they want to eat. They then silently pounce on the from above.
So if you have a pet rabbit that lives outside, a way to thwart the efforts of local owls is to make sure that you provide an enclosure for your rabbit that has a roof. This will keep owls from being able to utilize their stealth to surprise your rabbit from above.
A good enclosure can ensure that owls will be as successful at hunting your pet rabbit as Elmer Fudd was at hunting Bugs Bunny.