White Barn Owls Excel at Hunting in Bright Moonlight

Moonlight Reflecting Off Owl’s White Feathers Makes Voles Freeze Longer and Easier to Hunt

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Legend has it the full moon brings out the savage beast in a werewolf, and new research shows that it makes a white barn owl even more frightening for a vole.

As a matter of fact, white barn owls use moonlight to instill terror in their prey.

Under a full moon, the owl’s white plumage triggers voles to freeze in their tracks.

This makes them easier to catch, according to a new study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Barn Owl Color Key for Successful Hunting

Barn owls appear in two colors, a reddish-brown and bright white.

University of Lausanne, Switzerland researchers found when the moon is new, both owls are successful hunting averaging five voles a night.

But when the moon is full and bright, reddish-brown owls are less successful hunting averaging 3 voles a night.

Even with a barn owl’s unique feather design allowing them to fly in dead silence, the pesky moon gives them away to prey.


White Barn Owls Have Hunting Advantage

The white-faced and breasted barn owls catch more voles than their reddish relatives.

Even though lunar light reflects off their feathers and they’re more easily spotted by voles.

The researchers found this counterintuitive since the reddish-brown owls are much more camouflaged under a bright moon.

So they designed an experiment flying taxidermy owls on a zip wire to observe responses of voles.

White-faced and breasted barn owl catch more voles than their reddish relatives
White-faced and breasted barn owl catch more voles than their reddish relatives

White Feathers Reflect Moon Light

Voles are naturally started by bright lights.

They observed as the moonlight reflected off the owl’s white feathers, the terrified vole acts like a deer caught in the headlights.

The voles freeze in place five seconds longer, giving white barn owls an advantage hunting them.

The researchers say this may explain why both types of barn owl colors persist.

Detection by Competitors

White barn owls are only favored under certain conditions.

Including a full moon, despite being more conspicuous on bright moonlight nights.

However, when it’s not a full moon, the birds’ white plumage make them easily detected by harassing competitors, like carrion crows.

Researchers say the study shows that the moon differently affects the hunting performance of barn owls with contrasting plumage colorations.

And raises the possibility that the unique white coloration of barn owls gives them a clear advantage over their prey on bright, moonlight nights.


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