Field Guide: Snowy owls' superpower
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.
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.”