Calling All Owls – Activities

FOCUS: Owls are birds of prey with many special adaptations related to their lives as nighttime hunters. With soft wings, huge eyes, and superb hearing, they can detect the slightest sound or movement and swoop down silently on their unsuspecting prey. Owl pellets tell us about their food preferences, and their calls, an adaptation for communicating with others of their kind, tell us which owls are living in our area.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about owls.

Play a recording of a barred owl or great horned owl call. Ask children what they think about when they hear the sound. Then show a photo of the owl and ask for observations or questions.

Materialsaudio recording and photo of either a barred owl or great horned owl.

Objective: To meet some different owls and learn to recognize their calls.

Show pictures of owls known to live in the local area. Ask children to point out differences in their appearance such as size, eye color, patterning, and whether they have ear tufts or not. Now play recordings of each owl. Have the children think of words or phrases to imitate each call and help to remember it. Some examples are the following:

Great Horned Owl: “Who’s awake? Me too!”

Barred Owl: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”

Saw-whet Owl: “I can do this all night long. I can do this all night long.”

Then play the calls again in a different order and have the children try to identify each owl by sound. Why do owls call? (To attract a mate and to defend a territory.)

Materials: Pictures or slides of owls and recordings of their calls, audio player, projector, Owl Slide Show script.

Objective: To investigate and model differences between owls’ eyes and our own.

Show the children pictures of owls, paying special attention to the eyes. Are they on either side of the head or in the front? (In front, facing forward.)

Now show them the Saw-whet Owl Skull drawing. Do the eyes look big or small for the size of the head? Hold up two grapefruits or a set of cardboard owl eyes to show how big our eyes would be if they were proportionately as big as an owl’s eyes.

Have children face forward and, without moving their heads, look up to the sky, down to the ground, to the right and to the left. Notice that we can move our eyeballs without moving our heads. Explain that owls’ eyes are fixed in place. Instead owls can turn their necks to face different directions.

Explain that owls can rotate their heads much farther than we can. Have the children stand up and look as far to the right as they can without moving their bodies, then as far to the left. Now, to see how far an owl can turn its head, have everyone face forward and, keeping their heads in line with their bodies, turn their bodies in a tight circle until they have rotated about three-quarters of the way around. Now rotate back to the start and turn in the other direction. This is how far an owl can turn its head without moving its body. How might it help an owl to be able to turn its head this far? (It can’t move its eyeballs, so this way it can still look for prey or predators without shifting its position and giving itself away.)

Materials: Saw-whet Owl Skull drawing, two grapefruits or a set of cardboard owl eyes with each eye about 4” in diameter.

Objective: To investigate the importance of two ears in locating sounds and the effect of cupping ears on loudness.

Show children the Saw-whet Owl Skull drawing, pointing out the position of the two ear canals. Notice that they are asymmetrical, with one higher than the other. This helps owls locate sounds better than our symmetrical ears. Tell the children they will close their eyes and count to ten out loud and then quietly listen for the sound of rustling paper. When they hear it, they must point towards the sound and open their eyes. While the children are counting loudly, the leader walks to a different place and then rustles a piece of paper. Could everyone locate this faint noise correctly? Have the children cup their hands behind their ears while you rustle the paper and then listen without hands. Is the sound louder or quieter when they cup their hands? (Usually sounds louder.) How do owls funnel sounds to their ears? (By turning the feathers around the ear openings.)

Materials: paper to rustle; Saw-whet Owl Skull drawing.

Objective: To observe owl feathers and feet and use a model to investigate the effect of soft fringes on sound.

With children in small groups, pass around a preserved owl wing and/or feathers (from a licensed owner) for children to feel and observe closely with magnifying lenses. Have them look closely at the edges of the wing feathers. If possible compare to the stiff, smooth-edged flight feathers of other birds. What differences do they notice? (The owl feathers are softer and have fringes.) Ask children for ideas about why owl feathers might be different in this way. Could it affect how quietly they fly?

Test this idea with a demonstration. Have the children quietly listen at a safe distance while the leader swings a piece of nylon rope rapidly in a circle. What sound does it make? (A whirring sound.) Now show the children a similar-sized rope that has been frayed along its length. Will the sound be the same or different? Have the children listen while the leader swings the frayed rope. What sound does it make? (Almost no sound.) Are owl feathers more like the frayed or the unfrayed rope? (They are fringed and soft like the frayed rope.) How might the fringed feathers affect the amount of sound that wings make in flight? (Makes them quieter, to hear and sneak up on prey.)

Pass around an owl’s foot and have children examine it with a magnifying lens, noticing how the soft, fluffy feathers come down to the toes and the extremely sharp, curved talons. How do these adaptations help the owl? (Soft feathers allow silent flight and provide insulation; talons grab and kill prey.)

Materials: preserved owl wing and/or feathers and foot from a licensed owner; two 2′ pieces of nylon rope, one frayed along its length and the other one intact.

PUPPET SHOW “The Bedtime Story”
Objective: To learn about some special adaptations of owls for hunting at night and catching prey on the wing.

Perform the puppet show or have the children perform it for their classmates. Afterward ask questions to review key details and vocabulary. Ask children how an owl can see its prey at night (large eyes), hear its prey from a distance (keen hearing), and sneak up on its prey without being heard (soft feathers and silent flight). Where are the owl’s ears? (Not on top of its head – those are feather tufts; on its face, to the side of its eyes.) How does it catch its prey? (With the sharp talons on its feet.) How does it eat its food? (Small prey in one gulp, head first.)

Materials: puppets, script, stage.

Objective: To investigate the contents of owl pellets in order to learn the kinds and numbers of prey animals eaten per day.

Owls cough up pellets that contain the undigested remains of their daily prey. Ask the children how we could figure out how many and what kinds of prey an owl consumes in a day. One way would be to sort the contents of some owl pellets, keeping track of the numbers and kinds of bones and skulls we find.

Have children work individually or in small groups. Divide an owl pellet into pieces by gently pulling apart into two or three pieces. Give each child or group a paper plate or napkin on which to work. Show the children how to use their fingers or toothpicks to gently pull and pry apart the contents of the pellet, looking for bones, skulls, and other remains. Have children use the Owl Pellet Bone Chart and Vole Skeleton sheet to try to identify the skulls and bones they discover. They may wish to glue these onto black paper to make a display of their finds. Keep a list of the kinds of skulls (rodent, bird, shrew, and other items such as insect parts) in the pellets. With older students, make a class chart and help them to calculate the average number of skulls in each pellet (divide the total number of skulls by the number of pellets dissected). How many animals does a barn owl eat before it coughs up a pellet? Since it coughs up about one pellet a day, how many prey animals does it eat each day? What is its favorite prey?

Sample pellet chart to keep track of number of skulls:

Materials: barn owl pellets, one per three students, obtained from a biological supply company; for each team: Owl Pellet Bone Chart, toothpicks, magnifying lenses, black paper, glue, napkins or paper plates; optional: chart paper or whiteboard for recording numbers and types of skulls discovered by the class; online vole skeleton bone identification diagrams.

Objective: To practice making and recognizing owl calls.

Take the children to the corner of a building. Ask for two or three volunteers to be Callers. The rest will be Listeners. Take the callers around the corner out of view of the listeners. Decide what owl the Callers want to be and then imitate its call loudly, in unison. The Listeners identify the owl species by calling out its name. Once they’ve identified it correctly, the game can be repeated with a new group of callers. Repeat until all have had a chance to be Callers and Listeners.

Materials: optional: recordings of local owl calls.

Objective: To model how hearing helps an owl to locate its prey.

Have the class stand in a large circle and select one child to be the owl and two to be prey animals such as mice. The owl stands with eyes closed in the middle of the circle. The mice can move around within the circle but cannot go outside it. Children in the circle hold their arms up like tree branches and make a quiet “shhh” sound. At a signal from the leader, the mice start to move around and the owl tries to tag one of them. Have mice wear noisy clothing or rustle a piece of paper as they move. When the owl tags a mouse, have them each switch places with someone in the circle. How hard was it to locate moving prey with ears alone?

Materials: optional: noisy clothing or paper to rustle.

JOURNAL ACTIVITY: My Favorite Owl and Its Call
Objective: To think about and record new discoveries about owls.

Provide small pictures of the owls covered in the lesson. Have children pick their favorite owl to glue into their science journal. Have them write its name, what its call sounds like, and any other observations about their favorite owl. For older children, have them draw the most interesting bones they found in the pellets and identify them from the Owl Pellet Bone Chart. Have children share their entries with others in small groups.

Materials: journals or clipboards and paper, pencils, small photos or drawings of different owl species covered in the workshop or Owls of New England Field Guide sheet, Owl Pellet Bone Chart.

Objective: To compare body size in local owl species.

 Have children work in small groups and give them a set of five Life-sized Cardboard Owl Cutouts. Have the children hold up their owl cutouts and arrange themselves in order of owl size from smallest to largest. What is our smallest Northeastern owl? (Northern saw-whet owl.) What is our largest Northeastern owl? (Great horned owl.)

Materials: for each group: set of five Life-size Cardboard Owl Cutouts.

UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE:  Sizing Up Owls (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To compare body size in local owl species.

Have students work in small groups and assign each group a species of owl to investigate. Provide each group with an Owls of New England Field Guide sheet and a strip of paper about three inches wide and two feet long. Have students calculate the average length of their owl species from measurements given in the Guide. Then, have students measure and cut their strip of paper so that it is the average length of their owl. Have them label their strip with the owl’s name. Now have one person from each team hold up their strip vertically for all to see. Have students arrange themselves in order of size from largest to smallest owl.

Which is the largest owl in their area and which is the smallest? Have each team report the preferred prey species of each owl. Is there a connection between prey size and body size of the owls? How could they find out?

Materials: Owls of New England Field Guide sheet, strips of 3” x 24” paper (one per owl), long ruler or tape measures (one per group); optional: calculators.

Objective: To share thoughts from new learning about owls.

Have children complete this sentence: “My favorite thing about owls is…”


Skeleton reconstruction: Have children try to lay out all the rodent bones from their owl pellets to form a complete skeleton (as in the Complete Rodent Skeleton illustration). Glue to a piece of black cardstock for display.

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