Creature Feature: Masters of Silent Flight

Our Creature Feature series is brought to you through our collaborations in education and citizen science. In this post, the Biomimicry Institute shares more about what makes the barn owl a stealthy hunter as part of their mission to bring nature-inspired ideas to modern-day challenges.

Barn owl in Egypt. Photo by Ahmed Waheed (CC BY-NC-3.0). Submitted to the Great Nature Project.
Barn owl in Egypt. Photo by Ahmed Waheed (CC BY-NC-3.0). Submitted to the Great Nature Project.

By Sam Gochman, Ayda Uraz, and Jeanette Lim from the Biomimcry Institute

Barn owls are often regarded as mysterious creatures, with their nocturnal habits, ability to rotate their heads up to 270°, and super sensitive hearing. A feat that isn’t a mystery anymore, however, is the owl’s ability to fly inches from its prey unheard. Unlike other birds that create flapping noises during flight, barn owls have a few tricks up their feathery sleeves that enable them to fly silently. So, how does the owl do it?

Specialized feathers on the owl’s wings take air that would usually make noise as it rushes over the wings, and quiets it down using stiff serrated structures on the feather’s leading edge. Imagine these structures as a comb running through hair. Knotted hair going into the comb is broken up into many smaller, more manageable strands. Similarly, the serrated, comb-like edge of the owl’s wing divides large noisy airflows into smaller, quieter swirls of air. Then, as air passes over the wing, a flexible fringe on the wing’s trailing edge breaks up the air even more, further reducing noise. Finally, soft down feathers on the owl’s legs and body absorb any remaining sound, much like how foam in a recording studio absorbs sound to prevent echoes.

Together, these different feathers on the owl’s wings and body enable the flying predator to make very little noise in the frequency range in which many animals, including humans and the owl’s prey, can hear.

This one-of-a-kind design is particularly helpful as barn owls are nocturnal birds that hunt by listening for rustling critters. The owl wing’s comb-like edge works best when the owl moves at a steep angle, which is likely to occur when the owl silently swoops down to snatch its prey on the ground. You can look for these silent hunters across all continents, except Antarctica.

Barn owl in Greece. Photo by Paul Cools (CC BY-NC-3.0). Submitted to the Great Nature Project.
Barn owl in Greece. Photo by Paul Cools (CC BY-NC-3.0). Submitted to the Great Nature Project.

What can humans learn from this resourceful strategy?

As the owl is a symbol of wisdom, maybe there’s a thing or two we can learn from it. Owl feathers have already inspired innovators to design quieter, more energy-efficient trains and fans (check out Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train and the Fe2 Owlet fan). Other possible applications include quieter airplane wings or wind turbine blades, or sound-absorbing materials for buildings.

The ability to fly without making a sound is a critical adaptation for the barn owl. And, emulating the owl’s design has already led to improved designs in our world. What owl-inspired innovations will come next?

Have you ever looked to nature for inspiration to solve a problem? You can see more examples of how to learn from nature by browsing the AskNature collection of Great Nature Project photos.

The Great Nature Project

Submit your photos of barn owls or any other living thing to the Great Nature Project. You can keep track of your observations and get help from other people to identify what you saw. Browse or search the photo stream to see other amazing living things. Create an account to your share your photos of plants and animals.

More to learn and do:

Interested in classroom activities related to biomimicry? Find free resources on the Biomimicry Institute’s Biomimicry Education Network.

To learn more about the barn owl’s cool strategy and how we might apply it to make our human world more sustainable, check out AskNature.

Interested in contributing to AskNature? Learn more about sharing graphics, interning, and more.

Ayda Uraz is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University. She is interning with the Biomimicry Institute for the summer of 2015.  Her appreciation for nature inspires her to use design to improve the relationship between people and their environment. Sam Gochman is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts from Dartmouth College, majoring in biology and minoring in human-centered design. He is volunteering with AskNature for the summer of 2015. By viewing design from a biological perspective, he hopes to apply nature’s time-tested strategies to solutions for worldwide problems through biomimicry and biophilic design. Jeanette Lim is the AskNature content coordinator and gets to talk about nature’s wonders and inspiration with other nature lovers from around the world.

Sam Gochman from the Biomimicry Institute
Sam Gochman
Ayda Uraz
Ayda Uraz
Jeanette Lim works for the Biomimicry Institute and is a frequent guest blogger for the Great Nature Project.
Jeanette Lim

2 thoughts on “Creature Feature: Masters of Silent Flight

  1. Its really been nice to read about the Masters of Silent Flight, You must continue your writing. I am sure, you have a great reader’s base already!

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