Science Cafe explores the wonder of owls

Science Cafe explores the wonder of owls

During her recent visit to the Middle School, Kathleen Regan, a teacher naturalist with Mass Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Milton, brought out an actual hawk’s wing. She walked around the classroom with it, waving it up and down to mimic a flapping motion, the wing making a whooshing sound as it moved. 

Regan then brought out an owl’s wing and did the exact same thing. The students heard … nothing. 

“Isn’t that cool?” she asked the students, who seemed to think it was very, very cool. 

Owls, she told the group, are unique because they are the only birds who have mastered silent flight. As a nocturnal bird of prey, the owl relies on its incredible sense of hearing, and its supersoft feathers and aerodynamic wings work to make things as quiet as possible for the predator. 

Regan walked around the
classroom with the owls

“Their entire body is designed to help them hear better,” Regan, who served as guest speaker for that day’s Science Cafe, told the dozen or so students in attendance. 

Regan shared other amazing facts about owls, including that their eyes are fixed in their sockets, that they can rotate their head 270 degrees in either direction, that (like all birds of prey) they hunt with their talons, and that they can’t fly that well when it’s raining because their poofy feathers lack any oil, a substance which most other birds use to make their feathers water-resistant. 

While these facts were fascinating in and of themselves, the real oohs and aahs didn’t start until Regan brought out Willow and Evie, two owls who live at the museum. 

“These are the rock stars,” said a smiling Regan, referring to Willow and Evie. “I’m just the roadie.” 

Regan emphasized that the owls, like all the other animals that live at the museum, are there because they would not survive in the wild. Two primary reasons, she said, are some injury or people trying — illegally — to keep them as pets. 

“Our preference is to get them back to nature,” she said. 

Regan said she’s been working at the museum for several years now and couldn’t imagine doing anything different. “This is what I do now, and I’m going to do this for the rest of my life,” she told students. 

But she also recalled the path to her career, one which involved volunteering to learn new skills — such as conducting water testing, scuba diving, hand harvesting invasive species, and monitoring endangered timber rattlesnakes — along the way. 

“Whenever a new opportunity came up, I raised my hand,” said Regan, who then told students: “If something new comes along, volunteer for it.” 

Like all Science Cafes, which are organized by Middle School science teacher Natalie Young, the Feb. 9 presentation introduced STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) topics and careers to interested middle schoolers. 

According to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, there are eight species of owl that can be seen in Massachusetts. They are: the great horned owl; the barred owl; the eastern screech owl; the northern saw-whet owl; the long-eared owl; the short-eared owl; the barn owl; and the snowy owl. All of these owls breed in Massachusetts except for the snowy owl, which can be seen here when it migrates. 

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