Young Short-eared Owl Experimenting With Its Eyesight?

It’s often a fool’s errand to assign motivation to unexplained bird behaviors so in this case I won’t make any claims. But I have to wonder if this young owl might have been experimenting with its eyesight.

I don’t know the sex of this bird but for the sake of convenience I’ll refer to it as a male in this post.

 

1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, not baited, set up or called in

With my track record with finding owls entangled in barbed wire I’m always apprehensive when I find one this close to the “devil wire” but this one, photographed last summer in northern Utah, had no problem with it. In fact it may have used the wire as a learning tool.

Here the recently fledged young owl is checking out my pickup with great interest. Notice that he’s holding his ear tufts erect so they’re easily seen. With this species the tufts are short (thus the name “short-eared”) and usually flattened against the head so they’re difficult to see.

 

 

1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, not baited, set up or called in

Then, as young owls often do, he decided to use parallax on my pickup (with two clicking photographers inside) so he began to rotate his head counterclockwise. He’d already rotated it clockwise just prior to these shots.

Owls use motion parallax in combination with their forward-facing eyes and excellent binocular vision to determine depth in their field of view and young owls in particular are known for practicing the skill regularly. Humans (including me) often find the behavior comical and that contributes to why we find owls so endearing.

 

 

1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, not baited, set up or called in

But when he reached this degree of rotation the upper wire blocked much of my pickup from the view of his right eye so he…

 

 

1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, not baited, set up or called in

closed that eye for a few moments by lowering his upper eyelid. Shortly after this shot was taken he rotated his head back to a normal position.

I can’t help wondering why he closed the eye. Owls often blink with their upper eyelid but the timing of this closing of only the right eye, just as that eye’s vision became blocked by the wire, suggests to me that perhaps the young owl was temporarily confused by the sudden loss of visual cues in that eye from my pickup. So he briefly closed it to block the confusing cues to see what would happen.

Was this experimentation and learning – similar to something a human child might do as it tries to interpret a confusing new world or was it only a coincidentally timed blink? I don’t know of course but my money’s on the former.

Ron

Notes on eyelids in owls: Owls have 3 eyelids including “normal” upper and lower lids. Their upper eyelids close when they blink and the lower one closes when they’re sleeping. Their third eyelid, the nictitating membrane or nictitans, is a thin layer of semi-transparent tissue that closed diagonally across the eye from inside to outside. That membrane cleans and lubricates the eye and is also used to protect it in certain situations.

Late Addendum: Friend and blog follower Tana Peery Hunter, a volunteer for Hawkwatch International, helps to care for Galileo the Short-eared Owl that Mia and I rescued from barbed wire last summer. Tana posted a recent cell phone photo of Galileo to Facebook that shows all three if his eyelids and I think it’s cute as hell. Here’s the link to the photo for those who are on FB. I hope it works. 

 

29 comments to Young Short-eared Owl Experimenting With Its Eyesight?