I do not envy the fate of mice and other small rodents now when the cold take over our forests and marshes. If you have the unfortunate luck of living in our pine forests and cork oaks, you will have to go on eggshells when you leave after sunset because that’s where the tawny owls lie in wait. They are not easy to see, but their plaintive ululation stands out among all the other sounds of the night. Their dark eyes scare but his robust body and big round head encourages to hug them with affection.
Unlike other owls, they lack outer ears, but not inner hears; these are actually located behind the eyes, in the facial disc, the feathered area that dominates the face and amplifies the received sounds and directs them towards their inner ears. They also have the peculiarity that they are located asymmetrically, the right one is more delayed, farther from the eye, than the left one in such a way that the sound arrives with a slight temporal lag, which allows the straigiforms to triangulate the sounds and locate their preys better.
Little mouse, if you live on the “vera”, on the edge of the marsh, you’d better go out for a walk late, because before sunset, the short-eared owl, one of our biggest nocturnal birds, lurks outside. Only eagle owl overshadow them in Doñana, but being these so scarce they can be considered the kings of the twilight. They go out to hunt when the light loosens and both small birds and rodents are in their sights. Their flight maneuvers at ground level at sunset is an spectacle of nature that we can already enjoy in Doñana these days. While flying the head searches restless in the bushes without being affected by the movements of the rest of the body.
Woe be to you home mouse if you went to live in El Rocío because ghosts come out at night and fall on you when you least expect it. But if you are a vole, a country mouse or a shrew and you have the misfortune to walk in the territories of the barn owl near an abandoned house, or have fled the winter floods near their hiding place in a tamarisk, your days are numbered. By day they rest, but at night they go hunting and they are implacable and accurate. Like all their relatives, they have three eyelids to adequately protect their eyes, the upper one is to blink, and the lower one to sleep, the third eyelid is called the nictitating membrane and closes from the side of the eye in order to keep them clean. Its typical heart-shaped head and white plumage stand out against the darkness of the night and its 17 different types of calls, some copied from the ghosts with which they share it, do not help it to improve its reputation as a bad omen.
Bugs, beastie, vermin and other crawling creatures, you will not be safe during the day if you were lucky enough to share the field with a small but smart little owl. After the sun rises or before it sets, they watch closely their hunting territories from their favorite perches. Their heads spin without stopping forward and back at impossible angles. Its 14 vertebrae, 7 more than us, ensure that they do not suffer stiff neck when executing angles of up to 270º. Its yellow eyes look at you more open than you could imagine eyes can be opened. If you hear a meow at sunset do not look for a cat.
The long-eared owl is solitary and elusive. You don’t see them by looking for them but just by chance. They hunt at night and rest during the day, well hidden in a tamarisk at the edge of the marshes. Their long ears do not help them hear better, as we saw before, but serve them to show their mood and break the roundness of their silhouettes. This one that we found today well hidden did not seem to be in good spirits. Like all its congeners and relatives, they will eat in a single bite their preys. Mice will not even know what was coming over them; the frayed edges of their feathers cause the air flow to decompose into innumerable swirls, small and silent. They will not suffer either, with a single bite they will go up to the heaven of mice within a second.
We do not want to forget about the tiny scops owl, although they prefer the warm nights of subtropical Africa to spend the winter and rarely visit us in spring, since they feel more comfortable in the farming areas and the parks and gardens in our cities and villages. Their short and repetitive whistle is unmistakable.