Barn owl that hunts by the light of my car headlights on main beam
If barn owls are such good nocturnal hunters, asksSimon Parker, why does a bird living close to me in East Cornwall regularly use the headlamps of passing cars to assist in searching for prey?
This particular bird is an impressive specimen, aerobatically agile and very fast, so it seems unlikely it is suffering from age-related failing sight. Its unmistakable creamy-white underside suddenly comes into view when entering a narrow lane close to the village of Linkinhorne.
This deep, meandering thoroughfare is bordered on both sides by tall and impenetrable Cornish hedges, topped with a dense mass of cropped thorn and May, which must provide good cover for shrews, voles, mice and birds. These, presumably, are what the owl is after.
Flying just ahead of, and very slightly higher than, the car, it will drop into the hedge, sometimes emerging with a small rodent. It is an incredible sight: the best thing to do is slow right down, turn the headlights to full beam, sit back and watch the show.
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No creature can see in complete darkness but a barn owl's eyes are, on average, twice as light sensitive as human eyes. The owl's low-light vision is also highly movement sensitive. In near-darkness humans may see areas of dim light and shadow. In the same conditions a barn owl can see detail within shadows. Anything small that starts to move is instantly noticed by the owl.
So why, when it already has superb night vision, does "my" barn owl risk being hit by a huge lump of speeding metal when it has no need to?
It's certainly a puzzle, especially when you learn that the owl's adapted eyes also work well in full sunlight and can actually be briefly impaired by moving light, such as car headlights.
Whatever the reason for this bird's behaviour, witnessing one of its regular displays is as good as watching a David Attenborough film or an episode of Spring Watch.