We’re headed off to an owl sanctuary to meet up with Nolan the know-it-owl for a special night owl Tour. We hear the sound of owl wings and check out some super-tubular owl eye facts. Find out how owls can swivel their heads 270 degrees and why their ears are at uneven spots on their heads. We’ll meet a poetry-loving barn owl named Olive, who fills us in on why owls are considered wise. Fun fact: owls are sometimes classified by their sounds -- bigger owls are hooters and smaller owls are tooters!

Special Thanks to the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the owl sounds used in this episode:

Jian Diego Fernández / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML420855751)
Paul Marvin / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML97928071)
Bob McGuire / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML188805)
Wil Hershberger / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML100707)
Gerrit Vyn / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML140258)
Thomas G. Sander / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML125346)
William R. Fish / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML22874)

Audio Transcript

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SPEAKER 1: You're listening to "Brains On," where we're serious about being curious.

SPEAKER 2: "Brains On" is supported, in part, by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

MOLLY BLOOM: It's me, Molly, and I'm here with Emmy Grace.


MOLLY BLOOM: And we're going on a night tour of the owl sanctuary.

EMMY GRACE: It's a beautiful Sitka preserve that's home to hundreds of owls.

MOLLY BLOOM: And the perfect place to answer all of your owl questions, like how they fly without making a sound?

EMMY GRACE: Why most owls are nocturnal, meaning they sleep during the day and are awake at night. That's why we're here after dark.


That's a great gray owl.

MOLLY BLOOM: Oh, what was that sound?

EMMY GRACE: Don't worry, it's probably a mouse trying to hide from all the owls around here.


SPEAKER 3: Who goes there?

EMMY GRACE: It is I, Emmy Grace.

MOLLY BLOOM: And me, Molly Bloom.

SPEAKER 3: Oh, hello. We've been expecting you.

EMMY GRACE: Hey, are you the great gray owl I just heard?

SPEAKER 3: Most likely, yes.

EMMY GRACE: You're really big.

SPEAKER 3: Two feet tall to be exact. We're the largest owls in North America, and that is the first owl fact you've learned on your tour. Please enter.

MOLLY BLOOM: You are listening to "Brains On" from APM Studios. I'm Molly Bloom, and my co-host today is Emmy Grace from the Bronx. Hey, Emmy Grace.

EMMY GRACE: Hi, Molly.

MOLLY BLOOM: So Emmy Grace, we are here at a very special owl sanctuary waiting for our tour guide, who also happens to be an owl. Should be here any minute. So let's talk about owls. I hear you love owls. We actually got this idea for the episode from an email you wrote to us about how much you love owls. So please tell me why? Why do you love owls so much?

EMMY GRACE: Well, I think I just love their personality because they're powerful. They're beautiful, and they are so cute.

MOLLY BLOOM: I mean, there's a lot of things to love about owls. But if you had to choose one thing that you love most about them, what would it be?

EMMY GRACE: Well, I guess it would be that they're really powerful because they represent what we wish we could be.

MOLLY BLOOM: Oh, please tell me more about that. How so?

EMMY GRACE: Well, we really want to be our wild selves, and that's what owls are.

MOLLY BLOOM: That's very beautiful. So what is your favorite fact about owls that you'd like to share with people?

EMMY GRACE: I think that it's probably that owls have amazing night vision, so it actually looks like they're seeing in the daytime instead of the night.

MOLLY BLOOM: That is amazing. And so, what is your favorite kind of owl? Do you have one?

EMMY GRACE: Oh, I love the Northern Saw-whet owls. They're adorable.

MOLLY BLOOM: What do they look like, if you can describe them for people who haven't seen them.

EMMY GRACE: So they have big, yellow eyes that look surprised at all times, and they have relatively small bodies. They're extremely tiny.


EMMY GRACE: And yes, they are very, very cute. They're brown and white, like brown and white spots, I'd say. And they're just so cute.

MOLLY BLOOM: You know, she said owls are like what we want to be like. So if you could have one special owl skill, what would it be?

EMMY GRACE: It would definitely be their night vision.

MOLLY BLOOM: What would you do with your night vision if you had it?

EMMY GRACE: Well, you know how people drive in the night, but they don't-- well, they can't see. I definitely help them, and I help them see things. And so that the world would be a safer place.

SPEAKER 4: Oh, boy. Yeah, cha, cha, cha.

EMMY GRACE: Nolan, the know-it owl?


SPEAKER 4: Ouch.


SPEAKER 4: Excuse me, ladies, I'm just going to dust off here. Sometimes, I just can't quite make those landings. Emmy Grace and Mabel, right?


SPEAKER 4: I knew that. I'm your tour guide, Nolan, the know-it owl. You got questions. I got owl the answers.

EMMY GRACE: Are you an Eastern Screech owl?

SPEAKER 4: Yes. You know you're owl, don't you?

EMMY GRACE: Yeah, I'm owl about owls.

SPEAKER 4: Oh, well, this tour is going to be full of new and fabulous owl facts you've never heard before. Here, put on these owl wings.

EMMY GRACE: Owl wings? Cool.

SPEAKER 4: Yeah, made them myself. Just kidding. Anyways, put on these goggles.

MOLLY BLOOM: Whoa, do these give us owl vision?

SPEAKER 4: You betcha, Myrtle.

MOLLY BLOOM: It's actually Molly.

SPEAKER 4: Exactly. I wanted you to get the full owl experience. Come on, let's fly.


SPEAKER 4: Through the woods, we go.

MOLLY BLOOM: I can't hear the sound of our wings flapping.

SPEAKER 4: That's because owls, unlike any other bird, fly almost completely silently.

EMMY GRACE: Isn't it so you can sneak up on your prey?

SPEAKER 4: Bingo, bingo, Emmy Grace. They can't hear us coming, and it's a good thing, too, because our wings are pretty close to our ears. So if we flap really loud, we wouldn't be able to hear a darn thing.

EMMY GRACE: So how do owls keep quiet when they fly?

SPEAKER 4: Because we have a-- hold on. Hoot, I don't remember. I'm still in training, see. My study guide will know. I have these recordings of my friend Lauren Smith. She's the communications director at the Owl Research Institute in Montana. That's why I'm carrying around this tape recorder. It's not just for style, but it looks good. Let's see.

LAUREN SMITH: So the front and then the back of their wings, they have this really tiny little fringe that's really soft. Actually, their flight feathers themselves are pretty soft. And so, the air goes through their feathers, not just over their feathers, and so that makes their flying quieter.

SPEAKER 4: Right. Right. Owls have the softest feathers of any bird, which makes it super easy for air to slip through them. Here, feel.

EMMY GRACE: Nolan, watch out for that tree.

SPEAKER 4: Close close call.

MOLLY BLOOM: I'm glad you spotted that branch, Emmy Grace.

EMMY GRACE: It's these owl goggles. I can see really well on them.

SPEAKER 4: Because owls have incredible vision. It's a zillion times better than human vision, I think.

EMMY GRACE: Owl vision is actually 10 to 100 times better than human vision.

SPEAKER 4: Oh, yeah, that's it.

EMMY GRACE: You know what else I think is really cool about owl eyes? You've got three eyelids.

SPEAKER 4: We do. One on top that we blink with, one on the bottom that comes up when we sleep, and the third eyelid called the nictitating membrane that keeps our eyes clean.

EMMY GRACE: But the coolest thing about owls is that owls don't have eyeballs. You have eye tubes or like cylinders. Owl eyes can't move from side to side like eyeballs. To see from side to side, I will have to swivel their heads. They can turn their heads really far in either direction.

SPEAKER 4: Yeah, we've got super swivel powers.

EMMY GRACE: Can we see you do it?

SPEAKER 4: Sure. Let's take a break on this branch. Nice to rest the wings a bit. Don't you think, Melanie?

MOLLY BLOOM: It's Molly.

SPEAKER 4: Of course. Of course. Now, watch my head turn.


MOLLY BLOOM: You can turn your head almost all the way around.

SPEAKER 4: 270 degrees around to be exact. Owls have got 14 neck vertebrae with really big holes in them, so the arteries going to our brains don't get pinched when we swivel our heads around like this. I'm like-- wait. Do you hear that?


SPEAKER 4: Oh, well, owls have better hearing than humans. So I'll let Lauren tell you about our ears. I got to find that snack.

LAUREN SMITH: Something that's really cool about owl ears is that they're asymmetrical. So that means that one ear is up higher on their head then the other one is, and that helps them better pinpoint what direction a sound is coming from. So if a mouse makes a sound, the sound waves are traveling to the owl, and they hit the ears at different times.

And that helps you better pinpoint the exact direction that your mouse is in. I've tried this myself, and it actually works. If you tilt your head, so your ears aren't level, and so one is higher than the other, it's easier to figure out what direction a sound is coming from.

MOLLY BLOOM: Cool. Speaking of hearing, why don't we take a break while Nolan listens for that rodent and treat our ears to a--

SPEAKER 5: Guess the sound.


MOLLY BLOOM: All right, here it is.

So Emmy Grace, what are your thoughts?

EMMY GRACE: It might be a wind chime or some metal clattering.

MOLLY BLOOM: Very, very good thought. We will hear it again and give you another chance to guess right after the break.

We're working on an episode about telekinesis. That's the word used to describe the superpower of moving things with your mind. If you had this superpower, what would you use it for? So Emmy Grace, what about you? What would you use telekinesis for?

EMMY GRACE: I would definitely use it for helping the planet, saving the planet. Because, well, I am vegan, and I can fight in saving the planet. And I really love this Earth.

MOLLY BLOOM: That is wonderful. So how do you think-- what's one thing we could do with our telekinesis powers to help save the Earth?

EMMY GRACE: We could definitely try to stop climate change or global warming.

MOLLY BLOOM: I really like that idea. I appreciate that you're thinking of that. You can send a recording of your answer to us at brainson.org/contact. While you're there, you can also send us mystery sounds, drawings, and questions.

EMMY GRACE: Like this one.

SPEAKER 6: Hi. I'm Sia from Toronto, Ontario. And my question is, why does ice help with swelling?

MOLLY BLOOM: You can hear an answer to that question by listening to the "Moment of Um" podcast. That's our new bite-sized daily podcast. You can find it wherever you listen to "Brains On."

EMMY GRACE: Just search for "Moment of Um."

MOLLY BLOOM: Mark, Sanden, and I are going on tour this spring. We're going to be in Boston, Los Angeles, in Saint Paul, Minnesota with our stage show, Your Brain is Magic. Come see us explain the wonder of the human brain, and join us for magic tricks, games, and more. Get info at brainson.org/events. All right, we'll be back with the answer and give you another chance to guess in just a bit.

EMMY GRACE: Keep listening.

MOLLY BLOOM: You're listening to "Brains On." I'm Molly, and I'm at a special owl sanctuary with my pal, Emmy Grace.

EMMY GRACE: Yeah, Nolan's a know-it-owl. He's showing us around and sharing cool owl facts.

MOLLY BLOOM: But before we get back to our tour, let's finish up some important business. Emmy Grace, you ready to hear the mystery sound one more time?


MOLLY BLOOM: All right, here it is.


So did you hear anything new that time around?

EMMY GRACE: Well, I think it's either a wind chime or utensils against each other. It really sounds like either one of those two.

MOLLY BLOOM: Well, you have owl-like ears because you are correct. It is the answer of silverware, utensils hitting against each other in the dishwasher.


MOLLY BLOOM: All that time you've been spending with owls has paid off for sure. Nice work.

SPEAKER 6: Ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba "Brains On."

MOLLY BLOOM: So we've learned a ton about owls so far, like owls have tubes for eyes. Oh, my goodness. And they can turn their heads 270 degrees around.

EMMY GRACE: And they can fly quietly because their feathers are so soft, the air moves through them.

MOLLY BLOOM: And owl ears are asymmetrical?

SPEAKER 4: Emmy Grace, Mindy.

MOLLY BLOOM: It's Molly.

SPEAKER 4: Right. I spotted my snack. Follow me.

EMMY GRACE: Nolan, watch out. There's another owl. Nolan, are you OK?

SPEAKER 4: Yes, but that great horned owl snagged my mouse. Come back here, you.

SPEAKER 7: Sorry, Stinker.

SPEAKER 4: At least, I lost out to the best hunter in town.

SPEAKER 7: That's right.

SPEAKER 4: Harlon here has got porcupines, skunks, snakes, and even another owl once, right Harlon?

SPEAKER 7: That's right.

EMMY GRACE: Wow, I've never seen a great horned owl up close. You're the most aggressive type of owl out there.

SPEAKER 7: Good bye, mousy.

MOLLY BLOOM: Wow. Do owls always eat their food whole?

SPEAKER 4: Basically. Sometimes, we rip food into pieces, but we still swallow everything in big chunks. We don't have teeth, so you know.

EMMY GRACE: And that's where owl pellets come from. Owls don't have the right digestive juices to break down things like fur, feathers, teeth, bones, or beaks, so all of that extra stuff gets packed into clumps in owl stomach. And about 10 to 20 hours after a meal, they cough their pellets up.

SPEAKER 7: Tasty snack. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got babies and a missus to feed. Off to hunt more mice. Catch you later, Nolan.

SPEAKER 4: Bye. Dear ladies, mind if we just sit here for a while? I need a minute to recover.



SPEAKER 4: I'm annoyed at Harlon for stealing my snack.

MOLLY BLOOM: If someone beat me to my snack I would be very bummed, too. Do you want some of my trail mix instead?

SPEAKER 4: Oh, thanks, but no. When you got a hankering for rodent, nothing else will do, Matilda.

MOLLY BLOOM: It's-- never mind.

EMMY GRACE: Do you hear that, Molly? It's a burrowing owl. They live in tunnels underground.

MOLLY BLOOM: And that's an Eastern screech owl, right?


SPEAKER 4: That's my cousin Morty.

MOLLY BLOOM: Wow, owl calls are all so different.

SPEAKER 4: Yeah. Lauren's got a good bit about owl hoots and toots.

LAUREN SMITH: Owls make lots of different kinds of sounds. We say that there's hooters and tooters. So some of them hoot, and then some of them make tooting noises. But they can also yelp, and scream, and bark, and whistle, and growl.

And they whinny, or they make these really raspy sounds. So burrowing owl chicks can imitate rattlesnake rattles, and they'll clack at their bills sometimes. But if they do that, that means they're very upset. So if you ever hear an owl clacking its bill, you should leave it alone because that means it's very mad at you.

EMMY GRACE: Hooters and tooters?

MOLLY BLOOM: Nolan, are you a hooter or a tooter?

SPEAKER 4: I'm a tooter. It's a whole thing. Owls that hoot are big, like great horned owls or barred owls. Owls that toot are smaller, like the Northern saw-whet, which sounds like a truck backing up, or a northern pygmy owl.

MOLLY BLOOM: Owl calls are so musical.

SPEAKER 4: Yeah.

MOLLY BLOOM: Oh, we have a barn owl.

SPEAKER 4: Barn owl.


SPEAKER 4: Pretty sure Olive, the oldest owl. She knows everything about owl literature and history. We should go visit her. Come on.

SPEAKER 8: Who's going bald? Me?

SPEAKER 4: I can hear her now. She's listening to the radio. This way.

SPEAKER 8: I told you.

SPEAKER 4: Hello, Olive.

SPEAKER 9: Nosy Nolan you give me a terrible fright.

SPEAKER 4: Sorry, Olive. I'm doing a tour. This is Mandy and Emmy Grace.


SPEAKER 9: Oh, humans. I see.



SPEAKER 9: Pardon me, I never know who Nolan is going to affix those dreadful wings to. Last week, it was a golden retriever named Peanuts, and my heart nearly stopped.

SPEAKER 4: Sorry there, Olive, didn't mean to ruffle your feathers.

MOLLY BLOOM: Olive, were you just listening to "Winnie the Pooh?"

SPEAKER 9: I was. What a delight. Owl is one of my favorite characters. I was just chuckling over this bit.

SPEAKER 10: Owls always have the right of way over the common ordinary water fowl.

SPEAKER 9: Isn't it true? I'm certain Owl was based on my old love, Bertrand. He was such a wise old fowl.

MOLLY BLOOM: Oh, how sweet.

SPEAKER 9: He loved the poem, A Wise Old Owl by Anonymous.

MOLLY BLOOM: I don't think I know that one.

SPEAKER 9: Oh, in that case. A wise old owl lived in an oak. The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can't we all be like that wise, old bird?

MOLLY BLOOM: Oh, I like it.

EMMY GRACE: Olive, will you say all owls are wise?

SPEAKER 9: Oh, well, I know some pretty daft owls, so no. But we've long been considered symbols of wisdom by cultures around the world. It all started with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and her little owl. Legend has it that Nick Timmeney, the Greek princess of the Island of Lesbos fled the island when her father was cruel to her and took shelter in the forest.

SPEAKER 11: Where am I?

SPEAKER 9: She was lost and too afraid to face the light of day. When Athena found her and took pity on her--

SPEAKER 12: Stay, my child.

SPEAKER 9: --and transformed her into an owl. According to some, Athena replaced her best friend crow with Nick Timmeney, the owl, and the crow was very bitter about it.

SPEAKER 13: How could you, Athena?

SPEAKER 9: Either way, Athena and her owl were inseparable. It was believed that little owl or Athene noctua was Athena's friend advisor and protector. People said that little owl's remarkable vision could pierce the darkest of nights and help Athena see the whole truth.


EMMY GRACE: Did you know Athene noctua is an actual type of owl?

SPEAKER 9: Quite yes, I did.

EMMY GRACE: It's a small species, about 8 and 1/2 inches tall, and they used to live all over Athens. The Athenian coins actually had owls on them.

SPEAKER 9: My, my, we have an owl expert on our hands. It's true. The ancient Greeks are responsible for turning the owl into a symbol of wisdom.

MOLLY BLOOM: Aren't owls also thought of as good luck?

SPEAKER 9: Yes. In Japan, they're called fukuro, which means luck to come. Don't fret. That's just my brother Bert, the barn owl.

EMMY GRACE: Barn owls have scary calls.

SPEAKER 9: We do. Lots of humans are scared of barn owls, and owls in general.

EMMY GRACE: I don't know why.

SPEAKER 9: Because of the darkness. Owls are creatures of the night, and humans tend to be afraid of the dark.

EMMY GRACE: Not all owls are nocturnal, though. Some hunt at dawn and dusk, and others hunt during the day.

SPEAKER 9: True, Emmy Grace, but most owls are nocturnal because the cloak of darkness makes it easier for them to sneak up on their prey and snatch them.

MOLLY BLOOM: Especially scary if you're a little mouse.

SPEAKER 9: Oh, yes. Owls have long been symbols of darkness, evil, and even death. The ancient Romans believed that owl's hoot meant someone was going to die.

SPEAKER 4: And yesterday, the bird of night did sit, even at noonday upon the marketplace, hooting and shrieking.

SPEAKER 9: Brava. Nolan. I can't believe you have that quote memorized.

SPEAKER 4: I'm not a total sham, Olive.

SPEAKER 9: Nolan just delivered a quote from Shakespeare's play, "Julius Caesar." The hooting and shrieking owl was thought to warn of Julius Caesar's murder.

EMMY GRACE: I got the chills.

SPEAKER 9: I'm sorry, I didn't mean to get so bleak.

MOLLY BLOOM: Well, lucky for us, the sun is starting to rise.

SPEAKER 4: Oh. Yep, it's almost time to call it a night.

SPEAKER 9: OK. Well, before you go, let me leave you with a positive thought about owls, one from AA Milne, the author of "Winnie the Pooh." Owl is the grand and rather clever old man of the forest. He can also spell Tuesday, and that is all. Goodbye.

EMMY GRACE: Bye, Olive.

MOLLY BLOOM: Goodnight.

SPEAKER 4: Well, it's been a pleasure. Thank you for coming, Emmy Grace and Molly.

MOLLY BLOOM: It's Molly. Oh, you got it right.

SPEAKER 4: Of course, Molly. If you two wouldn't mind passing back those wings and goggles, we'll be all set. And please leave me a rating on hoot.com. Five eggs, if possible. Ratings really help, but whatever.

MOLLY BLOOM: We'll look into it.

SPEAKER 4: Great. Then, I'll be seeing you both. Toda-loo.

EMMY GRACE: Bye, Nolan. It was nice to meet you.

MOLLY BLOOM: Bye. Thank you so much. Owls have special eyes that are shaped like tubes and three sets of eyelids.

EMMY GRACE: And they can turn their heads 270 degrees around to help them find prey.

MOLLY BLOOM: Most owls are nocturnal because the darkness is great protection for hunting.

EMMY GRACE: And they barfed up pellets because they swallow their food whole and can't digest bones and fur.

MOLLY BLOOM: That's it for this episode of "Brains On."

EMMY GRACE: "Brains On" is produced by Marc Sanchez, Sanden Totten, Molly Bloom, Ruby Guthrie, Rose Dupont, and Anna Weggel.

MOLLY BLOOM: Our sharp eyed fellow is Anna Goldfield, and our executive producer is Beth Perlman. We had engineering help from Jess Berg, Eric Ramani, and Gary O'Keefe. This episode was sound design by Eduardo Perez. The executives in charge of APM Studios are Lilly Kim, Alex Shaffer, and Joanne Griffith. Special thanks to Grant Miller, Gladys, Roy, and Emmy Grace's stuffed owl talents.

EMMY GRACE: "Brains On" is a nonprofit public radio program.

MOLLY BLOOM: There are lots of ways you can support the show. You can donate by our books. Come see us on tour, or tell your friends about us.

EMMY GRACE: Head to brainson.org to find the links to do all those things.

MOLLY BLOOM: If you have a mystery sound you want to share with us, you can do that at brainson.org/contact. Everyone who sends a question idea, mystery sound, drawing, or high fives gets added to the brain's honor roll. Here's the most recent group of listeners to be added.


We'll be back soon with more answers to your questions.

EMMY GRACE: Thanks for listening.

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