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How birds hunt in the snow

Ronnie, the Owl

Ronnie the Ural Owl

It might be surprising to hear that in winter, the owl will be more likely to catch the mouse than the falcon. Why you ask? Well, the falcon relies on his eye sight alone whilst owls, although they have exceptional eye sight as well, utilise their hearing in their favour when it comes to hunting in the snow.

As their primary sense, the facial disk of an owl, such as that on Ronnie, acts like a satellite dish with a rim where you find bristle like feathers. These feathers trap the sound and the direct it to the ears on the side of the owl's head. Sometimes an owl's ears can be one higher than the other in which case it helps the owl indicate if the sound is coming from above or below. 

Owls can also block out noise and focus on specific frequencies such as things like rustling, hearing this 10 times louder than we can. As they do not make any noise themselves when flying due to their frayed velvety feathers that break up the air flow, you will often hear owls described as the silent hunters.

When owls hear a sound, they take their current head position and start their flight that way, not altering it in flight. Their body will alter to manoeuvre around objects and their eyes will be fixed onto the location where the noise came from. It is only at the last minute that the owl will bring their feet up and extend them into where they heard the sound, striking their prey with 10 times their body weight. 

Did you know that owls make snow angels too? It's true! When they land and have punched through the snow, they leave patterns where their wings have made an indent.

Ace the Falcon, Lula the Buzzard Eagle and Shadow the Harris's Hawk

For hawks, falcons and eagles, if their prey is under the snow, they will struggle to locate easily, relying heavily on their vision - their eye sight is about 8 times better than ours.

Ace the Falcon for example, in his natural habitat he will sit on a nice rocky ledge, camouflaged by his feathers, surveying the horizon, seeing movement from up to a mile away. His stiff feathers help him take off quickly, cutting through the air reaching speeds of 90 mph in horizontal flight and in a dive he will reach speeds of 150 mph.

Ace, the Falcon

Kevin, the Vulture

Kevin, the Turkey Vulture

Similarly like for hawks, falcons and eagles, Kevin the Turkey Vulture relies heavily on his vision when he is trying to locate his prey.

However, he also has some extra features that help him. When you look at Kevin's face, you'll notice that you can see right through his nostrils, as there is no septum in the middle, which allows him to inhale an incredible amount of smell.

He can locate things using scent alone from two to five miles away. This ability will be slightly dampened down in snow, but will still give him a significant advance when hunting in winter.