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Field Guide: Snowy owls' superpower

Kurt Van Deusen / North Sky Raptor Sanctuary

Snowy owls can pounce on a mouse that's scurrying beneath the snow without ever setting eyes on it.  

That's because the birds have a superpower: their hearing.

“They can be above and up in a tree and listen to the critters munching on grass, traveling along their trails underneath the snow pack," explains Kaitlyn Bohnet, director of North Sky Raptor Sanctuary. "[Owls] triangulate where they are and then hit them through the snow pack.”   

Owls can detect mice with such precision in part because their ears are asymmetrical.  The right ear is a little larger and positioned a bit higher than the left ear. Sound hits one ear before the other and that helps the owl pinpoint the location of its prey.

Credit Jenna Sissen / North Sky Raptor Sanctuary
Kaitlyn Bohnet, executive director of the North Sky Raptor Sanctuary, prepares to transfer this snowy owl to a permanent home at a nature center, where he will serve as an educational ambassador. Although his injuries healed, he was left with some limitations that would not allow him to survive in the wild.

These lopsided ears don’t stick out of their head. Instead, owls have ear holes. Feathers around the hole direct the sound waves to the internal ear. 

An owl’s super hearing is also enhanced by the contours of its face. “They use their head as a big satellite disc, or facial disc actually, to funnel sound into those ear holes like our ear flaps channel sound into our inner ear,” Bohnet says.

Snowy owls have been sighted throughout northern Michigan this year.  If you want to see one before they head back north, Bohnet says to look for wide open fields with high places like trees, billboards and roof tops, where snowy owls like to perch. 

Then, follow her tip. “I’m looking along the ridgeline here because sometimes he looks like a little melty snowman up on top.”