The Lyco Lowdown: An Insider's View of Life at Lycoming

What a Hoot! Ornithologist Visits Lycoming College

Posted by Mikayla Feldbauer on Feb 7, 2017 4:00:00 PM
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Scott Weidensaul is an internationally known ornithologist, meaning he knows quite a lot about birds (in particular - owls). He has not only been the author of many books, but also the writer for sources such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and Smithsonian Magazine. Weidensaul has also directed several research efforts and has even been nominated for the Pulitzer prize.

He spoke at an Audubon Event held here at Lycoming College in November. I originally went to the event as extra credit for a biology class but ended up learning a lot and really enjoying the lecture.

Lycoming College Visit from an Ornithologist

Bumper, the blind owl

Before the event began, visitors were able to interact with two owls in the lobby outside the lecture hall. The smaller of the two, named Bumper, was blind because he was hit by a car. The larger one was a massive eagle owl. The birds were intimidating, but interesting to observe because they were very perceptive to what was happening around them and would turn their heads at the slightest sound.

The first thing that surprised me about this night was the amount of people there. The entire lecture hall where we normally have bio classes was full and some people were even standing or using extra chairs. The second thing that surprised me was that someone could talk about owls for so long. It really was fascinating that Mr. Weidensaul knew so much about them.

He started his talk by describing owls as “souls of the night.” he explained that no culture is indifferent to owls, some revere them and others fear them. There have been owls in cave drawings, art, and literature throughout history.

Another interesting part of the talk was Weidensaul’s description of how scientists think of owls. At first, it was believed that owls were related to night birds and predators, but with better technology, scientists were able to sequence more genomes and show that the closest relatives to owls are in fact mousebirds. It was also found that the family of barn owls split from typical owls, the other family, around 45 million years ago.

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An Eagle Owl

I also found it interesting that the ear tufts on owls are just used for camoflage, not hearing. Their actual “ears” are just openings in the skull. These openings are often asymmetrical on the owl’s head! For example, the one on the right points upward and the one on the left points downward. This is so the owl can locate soft sounds without moving its head.

The most interesting fact that I learned from this presentation has to be that the wings of all owls, except snowy owls, glow in UV light. This is because they contain porphyrins. These are contained in the owls’ wings to give them pigment. This is a part of the natural coloring of the owls. Their color helps them blend in with the forest. These porphyrins are not present in the wings of snowy owls because their wings have little to no pigment; this is because they don’t live in the forest but the arctic and need to be white to camouflage themselves there. These porphyrins break down in the sun so new feathers glow the brightest. This feature allows scientists to tell roughly how old the owl is in the field.

Scott Weidensaul knows a lot about owls. It was interesting to listen to his talk and hear about all the programs he’s doing involving owls. I hope that one day I will be able to invest myself that deeply in a subject about which I’m passionate! One of my favorite things about the liberal arts education is that I get to explore topics that are completely unrelated to my field. Contact admissions to find out all the incredible things Lycoming has to offer!

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Topics: Student Life, Liberal Arts Education