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All About Owls

Winter in the Roaring Fork Valley is truly a special time for nature lovers of all ages. Observing  wildlife thrive, even in the chilliest of weather, reminds us to appreciate all of the incredible adaptations that make winter survival possible. This month at ACES at Hallam Lake, we invite locals and visitors to learn about masters of adaptations, and some of nature’s stealthiest hunters, owls!

Visitors at the Hallam Lake nature center can get an up-close look at our resident great horned owl to see the characteristics that make these predators so fierce. Great horned owls, which are very common in Colorado, and are named for the tufts of feathers atop their heads. These tufts resemble horns and help the owl camouflage with its surroundings because they distort the shape of the owl’s face. In 2008 ACES brought our resident owl to Hallam Lake from Utah, where he was rehabilitated from an injury that caused permanent damage to his wing. Birds have hollow bones that make them incredibly light for efficient flight, but the downside of this is that the bones are brittle and usually do not heal properly if broken. This is the case with all three of ACES’ birds of prey-- our golden eagle, red tailed hawk and great horned owl all broke bones in their wings, rendering them unable to hunt or survive in the wild. ACES operates a residency permit for non-releasable birds of prey and the raptors are our best educators!

Even though he wouldn’t survive on his own, our owl still retains all of the characteristics of a wild raptor and there are many reasons these animals are considered masters of the night sky. Like other raptors, all owls have three characteristics that distinguish them from non-predatory birds: incredible eyesight from forward facing eyes; talons used to catch and kill prey; and sharp, curved beaks to bite and tear apart their prey. When handling our owl, we wear a thick leather glove to protect our skin from his incredibly sharp talons, which he can squeeze eight times harder than a human hand! 

Owls are nocturnal, so they have amazing eyesight and hearing by necessity. Their ear holes are large and asymmetrical to allow for better triangulation of prey. Owls also have facial discs that funnel sound waves into their ears. Owls’ eyeballs take up about two thirds of their skulls, which doesn’t leave enough room for eye muscles, so owls can’t move their eyeballs side to side. To compensate for this, they are able to turn their heads about 270 degrees in either direction! Due to their large eyes, owls have become a symbol of wisdom and knowing in the western world. 

All of these impressive characteristics make for an incredibly efficient hunter, but there’s one more adaptation that I think trumps them all: owls’ ability to swallow their prey whole and cough up pellets! When owls hunt they are temporarily vulnerable the minute they land to catch their prey. Owls have adapted to gulp their food down as quickly as possible so that they can retreat to the safety of high perches. About eight to twelve hours after eating, the owl will cough up a pellet, formed in its gizzard and consisting of the indigestible parts of its prey, including the bones and fur. Kids in ACES Ed classes and camps love dissecting owl pellets and challenge themselves to find and reassemble a complete skeleton from what the owl’s gizzard rejected.

We hope you’ll join us for Owl Night on February 16th at ACES at Rock Bottom Ranch, or visit ACES at Hallam Lake this month to learn more about these amazing creatures and see our great horned owl up close!

~ Emily Chase