Specimen of the Week: Week 167
By Tannis M N Davidson, on 22 December 2014
Many different animals are associated with Christmastime. There are those with a biblical connection to the birth of Jesus –the animals of the nativity (donkey, ox and sheep) and the camels ridden by the three kings/wise men. There is the Yule goat of Scandinavia (whose ancient origin is connected to the Norse god Thor who rode a chariot drawn by two goats). There are the partridges, turtle doves, French hens, calling birds, geese-a-laying and swans-a-swimming that are mentioned in seasonal song. Of course there are also the reindeer, doves, robins, and wrens associated with yuletide joy, happiness, good fortune, peace and love.
So without much further ado, let me just add my own animal choice into the mix….this week’s specimen of the week is…
**The Eurasian Eagle Owl Feet**
1. The tradition
Not quite what you were expecting? I shall explain. Around our house, an owl is placed on the top of the Christmas tree. This was a tradition of my Finnish grandmother who, like her ancestors before her, celebrated all things natural and of the forest. Through the years, several different owls adorned the top of the tree – primarily as a result of annual hunting expeditions by the family cats. Nowadays we have a silver snowy owl (or Ookpik as they are known by the Canadian Inuit) who – with no predators around – is set to gaze down upon the festivities each Christmas for many years to come.
2. The specimen
The specimen of the week is the skin (left and right feet) of an eagle owl. My previous post (SOTW 161) also featured a study skin whereby I explained how these types of specimens are prepared: the skin is removed, dried, treated with absorbents, filled with a stuffing and possibly reinforced with supports to add support to legs/tails. The metal supports can be seen emerging from the bottom of the feet on this specimen. Why the feet? Lacking any snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) material, I chose a representative specimen of the only specimen we have from its genus – Bubo bubo – the Eurasian eagle owl. Recent mitochondrial DNA analyses by Wink and Heidrich (2000) and Olsen et al. (2002) have discovered close links between snowy owls (formerly within the genus Nyctea) and eagle owls suggesting that morphological differences are due to adaptation, not genetics.
3. Big bird
These are the large feet (formerly) belonging to an enormous bird. Eurasian eagle owls are amongst the largest owls and have an average wingspan of 160–188 cm up to a staggering 200 cm! Their total length ranges from 56 to 75 cm and they weigh between 1.9-4 kg. Compare this to an average, medium sized long-eared owl (see image below) which has a wingspan of 86-100 cm, has a body length of about 30-40 cm and weighs 178-435 grams.
4. Apex predator
You’ve undoubtedly noticed the rather long talons at the business end of the specimen. Eagle owls hunt and kill mainly small animals such as voles, rats, rabbits, reptiles, frogs, fish, large insects and earthworms but also prey on nearly any other bird unlucky enough to pass through their territory. They have also been known to kill animals of much larger size such as foxes, marmots and young deer (Andrews 1990). Their distribution is throughout northern Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the Middle East where they occupy a variety of habitats, preferably rocky landscapes. Nocturnal hunters, eagle owls tend to watch from a perch and then swoop down to catch their prey once movement has been detected. The prey is killed quickly by the owl’s powerful talons or it may be bitten on the head. The victim may then be swallowed whole or torn into pieces with the bill.
5. And finally…
Hopefully the above paragraph has not put you off your Christmas dinner. To counterbalance the savagery above, I thought I’d end this post with a little sweetness. I began by writing about my family’s long association with owls and Christmas as well as the little ookpik that sits on our tree. So here’s a small gift of holiday cuteness:
Wishing you all the best for the holiday season!
Tannis Davidson is Curatorial Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology
Andrews, Peter (1990) Owls, Caves, and Fossils: Predation, Preservation, and Accumulation of Small Mammal Bones in Caves, with an Analysis of the Pleistocene Cave Faunas from Westbury-sub-Mendip, Somerset, UK. University of Chicago Press.
Olsen, Jery; Wink, Michael; Sauer-Gürth, Heidi and Trost, Susan (2002). “A new Ninox owl from Sumba, Indonesia”. Emu 102 (3): 223–231.
Wink, Michael and Petra Heidrich (2000). “Molecular systematics of owls (Strigiformes) based on DNA-sequences of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene”. In Raptors at Risk (R.D Chancellor and B.-U. Meyburg eds). WWGBP/Hancock House.