Sorry, this video is not currently available.

Full EpisodeOwl Power

For centuries, owls have been featured in children’s books and folk tales capturing imaginations the world over. With their haunting calls and charismatic faces, these birds remain popular but mysterious because it’s rare to catch more than a glimpse of one in the wild. Unlike their cousins, the hawks, eagles and falcons, owls are the only bird of prey able to also hunt effectively at night when they have the skies to themselves. This has helped them become one of the most successful birds on earth, but the chief reason is due to their extraordinary super powers. To examine these special skills, filmmakers enlisted the help of veteran bird handlers, experts and technology to demonstrate and test the owl’s amazing abilities.

Transcript Print

NARRATOR: They can find prey without ever seeing it.

They can fly as silently as ghosts... and they are powerful predators, both night... and day.

Owls possess genuine superpowers.

To understand their amazing abilities, we're going to get closer than ever before.

Meet Luna and Lily.

Through the eyes of these fluffy little barn owl chicks -- and their unusual family -- we'll delve into the magical abilities of these mysterious birds.

MAN: You wouldn't want to be a vole, nah.

No, no, life as a vole would be brief.

NARRATOR: Technology will reveal how they do it.

MAN: There's not a sound!

That is really impressive, isn't it?

NARRATOR: We're about to find out what makes owls special.

What gives these birds of prey such a powerful edge?

NARRATOR: Owls live all over the world, from the frozen north to scorched deserts.

With their familiar faces, these charismatic birds have captured our imagination.

There are about 240 different species.

And they appear to have conquered our planet.

They live on every continent except Antarctica.

So, what are the secrets of their success?

Owls are birds of prey.

Like their cousins the hawks, eagles, and falcons, they have sharp talons, a curved beak, and a taste for small mammals.

But they also have unique skills that set them apart -- their superpowers.

[Owl screeches] To find out more, we need to go beneath the surface... And start at the very beginning -- when all of the potential for this remarkable bird is held in one tiny egg.

After 30 days of incubation, the chick inside is ready to make an appearance... but it's a tough task.

It can take 48 hours for an owlet to break out of its protective shell.

MAN: What're you up to in there?

You coming out yet, little one, eh?

NARRATOR: Anxiously waiting in the incubation room is an unusual father... for a bird.

MAN: I saw you move then -- I saw the egg move [Laughs] You moved!

[Projector whirring] NARRATOR: Lloyd Buck has been fascinated with owls since he was young.

Now, he and his wife, Rose, have a whole family of birds, including a barn owl called Kensa.

[Screeches] Johanna, the tawny owl.

LLOYD: That's a good girl!

NARRATOR: Arnie, Brann, Moses, PJ, and Sasha, the tawny eagle.

Lloyd and Rose love and care for their birds like their own children.

They also train them to star in films.

[Laughter] ROSE: We've got a little pellet... NARRATOR: They have a passion for educating others about birds and the importance of protecting them in the wild.

[Children laughing] Through the eyes of this special family, we're going to learn more about the owls' mysterious world.

Lloyd and Rose are going to put their own birds to the test.

And this year they're expecting some new arrivals.

Two barn owl chicks.

The first of them is ready to hatch.

LLOYD: One more big push and you're out!

[Chuckling] Oh! There you are!


Yeah, you've done well, little one, eh?

[Chirps] That must've been a huge effort, wasn't it, to get out of there?

See, it's easy to take it for granted when you're here, but actually, it's a really wondrous thing -- to see new life come into the world, there's something really special about that, really special.

Mind you, saying that, they're not the prettiest of owlets, are they?

NARRATOR: This chick and her younger sibling have come from a pair of captive barn owls.

As they grow, they'll give us a rare and incredible opportunity to learn more about these secretive birds.

LLOYD: We've already thought of a name.

Well, she's Luna.

We always tend to give our birds names 'cause they become part of the family.

NARRATOR: With Lloyd's love and care, Luna grows quickly.

And just six days later she meets her younger sister.

Lloyd and Rose call her Lily.

ROSE: Come on, then!

NARRATOR: During these early days and weeks, Lloyd and Rose need to give Luna and Lily round-the-clock attention.

ROSE: Delicious!

When they hatch, they're blind, completely helpless, they can't even regulate their own body temperature, and they need four feeds a day.

Aww, look!

It's just like babies, really!

But you've taken on a responsibility, so you just have to get on with it.

NARRATOR: The owlets have a long way to go before they transform into magnificent, superpowered owls.

Well, should we write down that you pooped today?


NARRATOR: Nature will play its part, but right now they're entirely dependent on Lloyd and Rose.

By the evening everyone's exhausted.

But in the wild this is the time when most owls are waking up.

[Owls hooting] The tawny owl haunts our nights.

But why choose to live in this dark and difficult time of day?

[Screeches] With the help of a special heat-seeking camera, we can enter this hidden nocturnal world.

It's springtime in the highlands of Scotland.

At this time of year male owls are feeling the pressure.

This one has a family of hungry mouths to feed in a nearby nest box.

The thermal camera reveals something else... Many mammals are active at night.

So, despite the dark, it's an ideal time to go hunting.

[Bleating] Success.

The female comes right over to collect the catch.

Her owlets are a month old with a growing appetite.

One mouse won't be enough.

But luckily, there's plenty more where that came from.

No other bird of prey can hunt in such darkness.

So, at night, owls have the skies to themselves.

It's one of the keys to their success.

But how are they able to see in the dark?

This is where owls deploy the first of their unique powers.

Owls have characteristically big eyes.

A tawny owl's eyes take up a staggering 70% of its skull.

For us, it's only 5%. These large eyes enable the owl to gather as much of the available light as possible.

At the back of the eye, the retina has a particularly high density of rod cells.

These cells are extremely sensitive in low light, capable of resolving an extra layer of detail, which is sent to the brain via the optic nerve.

These special adaptations mean a tawny owl can see an image 2.5 times brighter than the one we see.

Which helps it target small mammals lurking in dark undergrowth.

But tawny owls have another incredible skill.

They're territorial birds, and as they fly around their home range they create a mental map.

This means they can find their way in the dark avoiding unseen obstacles.

So, it's the owl's formidable memory combined with their sensitive vision that helps them take advantage of the nighttime world.

At two weeks old, Luna and Lily open their eyes.

But it's another few days before they can focus on anything.

Now, at three and four weeks old, they're starting to take in their surroundings.

Good night vision is probably the owl's best-known superpower.

But Luna was developing another one of her senses, even before she hatched.

-What do you think? -Yeah.

-Should we check on his progress? -Let's have a look.

On occasions, if you call to 'em, if you chip to 'em, they'll actually, uh, call back to you.

[Whooshing] [Chick responding] Amazing!

NARRATOR: Remarkably, owlets recognize the calls of their parents even from inside the egg.

It's amazing! That tiny little 'chip!'

We'll put him back in there.

NARRATOR: Which suggests sound must be an important part of their world.

But just how important is hearing to adult owls in the wild?

Among the derelict buildings of an old airfield, this barn owl is on the lookout for her next meal.

Cold weather and a blanket of snow have left her short of food.

So, she's been forced to hunt in the day.

And now, she's got competition... A kestrel.

It's one of the downsides of hunting during the daylight hours.

And even worse, the snow means she can't see her prey.

So, how do you find your food when it's hiding out of sight?

Hunger forces the kestrel to take a chance.

But his razor-sharp eyesight isn't enough in these conditions.

Luckily for the barn owl, she has another weapon in her armory.

Flying blind won't stop her eating.

Because although she can't see it, she can hear her prey -- even under the snow.

The kestrel simply doesn't have what it takes.

How does an owl's extraordinary hearing work?

Some owls have ear tufts, but these feathers aren't used for hearing.

They're more about communicating mood.

In fact, the owl's whole head is designed for listening.

Its distinctive round face is shaped like a satellite dish specifically to detect sound.

A ring of stiff feathers channels the sound towards the true ears -- which are hidden at the side of the face.

Some species of owl have one ear opening higher than the other.

This unique adaptation allows the owl to work out what height a sound is coming from, as well as the direction.

Sound arriving at the left ear before it reaches the right tells the owl it's coming from below.

At certain frequencies, an owl's hearing is ten times more sensitive than ours.

This extraordinary ability means this great grey owl can locate its prey even when it's out of sight.

But the owl's highly tuned hearing is made even more effective by yet another anatomical gift.

They can turn their heads through an incredible 270°. If we did that we'd cut off the blood supply to our brains and pass out.

But owls have evolved special adaptations in their necks.

As their head turns, wide spaces in the neck vertebrae make sure the blood vessels don't get crushed.

And enlarged arteries at the top of the neck create a reservoir which supplies a constant flow of blood to the brain.

This astonishing flexibility allows the owl to focus its super-sensitive vision and hearing directly at its prey.

In just two months there's been an amazing transformation.

Luna and Lily have grown from helpless little chicks... to near adult barn owls.

Now, they're fluffy down is being pushed out by real flight feathers.

Which marks the arrival of the biggest milestone in their young lives.

ROSE: Luna, come get weighed!

NARRATOR: Now that Luna has started using her wings, she's being slightly less cooperative about her daily weigh-in.

ROSE: I know you're hungry.

Good girl! Now, stay.

Don't go mad.

Steady, steady.

Good girl! That's it!

Wha-hey-hey! [Laughs] Luna, you can fly!

NARRATOR: Luna's very first flight starts with a leap of faith from the scales.

And now she's hop-flying every chance she can get.

Leaving her younger sister to stare in wonder.

Mastering this new skill doesn't happen overnight.

ROSE: She might have another go, though.

NARRATOR: But it's something she must get right -- her ability to hunt depends on it.

LLOYD: Luna... Don't fall in the bucket of water!


[Chuckling] I told you not to go in the bucket of water.

ROSE: Oh, poor thing!

LLOYD: You'll get very wet.

I don't think you'll do that again in a hurry.

NARRATOR: Luna and Lily are still spending the night in the house.

Now Luna can fly, nowhere is out-of-bounds.

And her enthusiastic flight practice is getting her into trouble.

LLOYD: Oi, that's a picture, Luna.

[Both laughing] NARRATOR: But Luna is lucky -- a house is a relatively safe place to practice this vital skill.

In the wild, some owls face a monumental challenge.

California Redwoods are giants of the forest -- the tallest trees in the world.

And perched precariously at the top of this one is a family of great grey owls.

It's a wonderfully safe place for a nest.

But when it comes to learning to fly, there are some obvious challenges.

Launching yourself off the equivalent of a 30-story building takes some courage.

Until they get the hang of it, the owlets rely on being able to...get a grip.

This is less flying, more... 'falling with style.'

He makes it safely to the ground.

But they must keep practicing, so, now, it's a long, hard climb back to the top.

And it's not long before they have liftoff.

Although Lily is a week younger than Luna, like any younger sibling, she's not going to be left behind.

Oh, you're a clever, clever, clever girl!

I know you're hungry.

NARRATOR: Before long, she's progressed from flapping to flying.

ROSE: Oh, that is so clever!

NARRATOR: The power of flight is something that sets birds apart.

ROSE: Lily! Ooh!

NARRATOR: And owls have refined their technique with some incredible adaptations.

LLOYD: Ready?

-ROSE: You ready? -LLOYD: Yep.

Lily! Come on!

NARRATOR: To fully understand how owls are different, we need to go back to basics.

What does it take for Lily to get airborne?

To find out, Lloyd and Rose have enlisted the help of bird expert Professor Graham Martin and high-speed cameraman Mark Payne-Gill.

For a bird to take to the air it has to overcome two forces... gravity, the invisible pull that keeps us grounded... and drag, which is the resistance we experience as we move through the air.

Bird use their wings to create lift and thrust.

But how do they do it?

Birds' wings are the shape of an aerofoil.

Air traveling over the top of the wing has to travel faster than air traveling beneath.

This creates a difference in air pressure, which generates lift.

To gain forward momentum birds flap their wings.

This makes the air flowing over them spiral off the trailing edge... creating vortices that thrust the bird forwards and upwards.

These are the basic principles of all flight.

But what's so unique about the way owls fly?

We fly quite a few different types of bird, vary in sizes.

But the one thing I notice about the owls is they always appear to be a lot slower in their flying than the other birds.

MARTIN: Well, all birds have got different wing shapes and they can fly at different speeds -- it's just like aircraft.

So, if you look at the wing size of a barn owl, it's actually got a very big wing, and so, they can fly very slow, very controlled.

NARRATOR: To really understand the barn owls' slow flight, Lloyd is putting Lily to the test against two of his other birds.

Maisie, the grey lag goose -- a long-distance endurance flier.

And Moses, the peregrine falcon -- one of the fastest birds on Earth.

The peregrine takes the lead.

Its long and pointed wings are quite flat, designed for speed and maneuverability which it needs to hunt.

The goose is next.

At six pounds, its relatively short and narrow wings work hard to get it airborne.

The barn owl has the largest wings in relation to its body.

And its aerofoil is very curved, which generates a huge amount of lift.

So, the barn owl can fly slower and with fewer wingbeats than most other birds ROSE: Whoo! Good girl!

NARRATOR: But why is that important?

Sometimes when you're watching the owls fly, they go so slowly it looks as if they're not going to be able to maintain flight.

That's right, they are actually flying so slow that they're very, very close to stalling.

But, of course, that's what they need to do.

Because when they're doing that very, very slow flight, they're hunting.

It may be just a little rustle in the grass, so they've got to be in the position to drop out of the sky and investigate it.

-And get a nice, tasty vole. -Absolutely, yeah.

NARRATOR: Owls have evolved a wing design perfectly suited for their aerial hunting strategy -- slow, yet deadly.

But the refinements don't stop there.

These birds have fine-tuned their flight so each species has subtle adaptations for the environment it lives in.

Like the barn owl, these short-eared owls have very large, broad wings, ideal for flying slowly while hunting over open ground.

Owls that live in woodland, like tawny owls, have shorter, more rounded wings, to help them maneuver between trees.

Wherever they live, all owls have an amazing aerial agility.

They're even able to take off vertically from a standstill.

It's a great defensive move, especially when you've got young to protect.

A dive-bombing arctic skua is no match for the snowy owl.

Such mastery of the skies seems to make these owls fearless, even against one of the arctic's largest predators.

Her supreme courage and skill drive the wolves away.

And her family is safe.

Owls have one more amazing superpower.

And this one is totally unique.

Something Lloyd and Rose have noticed with their 11-year-old barn owl Kensa.

When she flies across the meadow, she's mysteriously quiet.

How quiet is a hunting barn owl?

LLOYD: Kensa! [Whistles] NARRATOR: To find out, Lloyd has taken Kensa to a special studio... where Graham and sound recordist Gary Moore are going to put her to the test.

Against Smudge, the pigeon.

And Moses, the peregrine.

The birds' challenge?

To fly over a series of super sensitive microphones.

[Rose calling birds] [Pigeon squawking] Good girl.

[Lloyd calling bird] LLOYD: Moses? Mo?

NARRATOR: And now it's Kensa's turn.

[Lloyd calling] Kensa!

LLOYD: Did you hear anything?

Wow! No, nothing at all, absolutely quiet.

It was amazing.

NARRATOR: But what have the microphones picked up?

The decibel wave forms show the sound being generated by the birds in flight.

Each spike is an individual wingbeat.

But with the barn owl... there's almost nothing.

Even our array of super sensitive microphones fails to pick up any sound of Kensa in flight.

Nothing. Nothing at all.

I'll play it again.

LLOYD: There's not a sound!

That is really impressive, isn't it?

It shows that they really are silent fliers.

NARRATOR: How does a barn owl fly so silently?

When air moves it generates sound.

The more movement, the greater the sound.

The pigeon's large body and small wings mean it can't stay airborne without a lot of fast flapping.

This creates turbulence in the feathers below.

The peregrine has much larger wings, which it uses to build up speed and chase down its prey.

The barn owl is far more graceful.

Kensa's large wings and small body make it easier for her to generate lift.

Just one gentle wingbeat sees her gliding effortlessly through the air... creating little more than a whisper in the feathers below.

But that's not the only thing that helps the barn owl achieve near-silent flight.

It has an amazing adaptation which reduces air movement even further.

Its flight feathers have noise-reducing fringes on the leading and trailing edges.

And they have a velvet-like top to them.

These soft surfaces absorb air movement, reducing any turbulence and minimizing sound.

Silent flight is a crucial part of the barn owl's hunting strategy... allowing them to approach their prey unheard.

But like every superpowered creature, owls have their Kryptonite... [Thunder rolling] Rain.

This male short-eared owl has a young family back at the nest.

When it rains they're all at risk.

[Thunder rolling] Because there's a price to pay for having silent feathers.

They can't also be waterproof.

The female hunkers down.

She can't move or her chicks will be at risk of hypothermia.

The male is struggling, too.

He can't hear his prey over the driving rain.

So, today, his family will go hungry.

Wet weather can be fatal for owls.

It's one of the reasons some don't make it through their first winter.

Learning to hunt for themselves is a challenge all young owls face if they're going to survive.

Little owls fledge between four and five weeks.

After this, their parents encourage them to fend for themselves.

The adults usually hunt voles and other small mammals.

But these youngsters don't have the experience to take on such tricky prey.

So, they start by practicing on something a bit easier.

Earthworms won't be enough to see them through the winter.

But they're great for honing their hunting technique.

As birds of prey, owls are defined by their habit for hunting small animals.

Mastering the kill is a critical survival skill.

But it's clearly not easy.

So, what exactly is it youngsters need to learn?

[Screeching] To find out, Lloyd has brought Kensa to meet animal locomotion scientist, Dr. Jim Usherwood.

Together, they'll try to deconstruct the moment she pounces on her prey.

In Jim's laboratory, they've created a mini hunting ground.

Concealed beneath the turf are special plates that will enable Jim to measure the forces at play.

Lloyd has taught Kensa to associate food with a beeping sound.

When Rose presses the button, the box emits a beep.

And Kensa knows where to find her food.

[Beeping] LLOYD: You clever old barn owl.

How much force, then, does she exert on the pounce?

USHERWOOD: So, here we have the vertical forces of the owl.

And so, there's the force of taking off, and then you see some fairly powerful flaps, and then she eases off the gas, uses gravity to come back down at speed, hits the ground at about five meters per second, with a force that's something like 12 times body weight.

NARRATOR: This is the moment an owl must bring all its unique powers together.

Hanging silently in the air, Kensa uses her hearing and eyesight to find her target She angles her face to pinpoint the sound.

Once she's locked on, she positions her entire body for the pounce.

And then what I find really interesting, look, when she comes down, basically she's going head-first towards the ground.

USHERWOOD: And it's only now the legs come forwards, but the legs are still very, very bent.

And then it's right at the very end the legs extend, and then you get that thump.

LLOYD: So, she's coming down at five meters a second, she's hitting the ground at around 12 times her body weight.

Which would make sense, because primarily she's hunting small mammals, so she wants to hit them with as much force as possible to disable it and kill it.

USHERWOOD: What I was thinking was that those long legs would be useful to ease off the force.

But she's not easing off at all -- she's actually extending the legs just as she hits the ground.

Then gives it a good old thump.

NARRATOR: To put this in perspective, the force of Kensa's pounce is the equivalent of an eight-ton truck hitting a 170 pound man.

It's unlikely her prey would survive the impact.

You wouldn't want to be a vole, would you, now?

No, no, life as a vole would be brief.

NARRATOR: The journey to mastering such finely tuned superpowers starts early.

It's three months since Luna and Lily entered the world.

Now, it's time to see if their skills are coming together.

LLOYD: Come on, Luna. [Beep] Luna.

ROSE [laughing]: Mind your feet!

-Lily, come here. -LLOYD: Luna.

NARRATOR: Luna and Lily have grown up in an extraordinary family and become bold and confident birds.

ROSE: Yep!

[Rose laughing] LLOYD: Luna! You're not supposed to be on the camera.

ROSE: Lily!

Good girl! Good girl.

NARRATOR: But despite their unusual upbringing, out in the meadow their natural instincts kick in.

They're hunting just like adult barn owls, using all their superpowers -- keen eyesight, extraordinary hearing, and slow-and-silent flight.

[Lloyd calling] Good girl, come on.

NARRATOR: Nature has played its part... [Beeping] And Lloyd and Rose have done everything they can to get both birds to this moment.

But while Lily continues to hone her skills living alongside them, there's been an unexpected twist to her sister's story.

One evening, Luna flew off... and she didn't come back.

For Lloyd, it's a natural step from owlet to adult, reassuring him that he's equipped her with everything she needs for an independent life.

LLOYD: I've given her all the skills that she needs to survive.

I've been her parent, she's chosen to go.

It's her choice, and we always say they've got that choice to stay or go.

It's sad for me because you get really attached to them, but they don't have those trappings of human sentiment.

She's just gone on to the wild to do her own thing.

NARRATOR: Now more than ever, Luna will rely on those special skills that set owls apart.

For centuries, these enchanting birds have captured our imagination.

With their haunting calls and ghostly appearance, owls add a magic and mystery to our landscapes.

Their charismatic faces are so familiar, perhaps because they look so much more human than other birds.

But it's all their owl powers that make them one of the most successful and best loved birds on our planet.