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Are barn owl feathers waterproof?

Sent in by Derek Swindells, Cheshire

Barn owls are adapted to flying in silence. They rely on their hearing to detect prey on the ground such as mice and voles. Barn owl flight feathers have comb-like fringed edges, making them feel much softer, that enable these ghost like hunters to move through the air silently. Most other birds make noise whilst flying due to the straight edged feathers which makes stealthy hunting impossible.

However, this specialisation comes at a price, the feathers are not waterproof. To retain the softness and silent flight, the barn owl cannot use the preen oil or powder dust that other species use for waterproofing. Most birds do not need to fly silently so waterproofing and preening is an important activity. A preen gland is located at the base of the tail which secretes an oil that repels water. Birds will often preen their feathers, spreading the oil and ensuring the feathers all sit neatly over each other preventing water getting in. This is vital to many aquatic species and birds that have to contend with damp conditions as getting waterlogged feathers makes flying difficult and the loss of body heat.

Barn owls are very vulnerable birds due to their specific habitat needs and sensitivity to bad weather. If it is wet then they cannot hunt which may be disastrous during the breeding season. Unfortunately, barn owls are frequently found drowned in cattle drinking troughs. If they land to drink and bathe and find themselves unable to clamber out they are doomed. This is avoidable by fitting a floating crate in the trough which cattle can push down to drink and birds can land on without risk of getting into trouble.

Outside of the breeding season barn owls are very inactive, roosting up for up to 22 hours a day. The lack of waterproofing means that owls can struggle to keep warm, owls make up for this by having large numbers of downy feathers. This layer of feathers gives barn owls their rounded appearance and does a great job of keeping them warm.


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