You know why wizards choose owls to deliver their mail? It’s not because they are super cool looking (though they are undeniably one of the most stylish of birds), it’s because they make barely any noise when they fly. You can trust them to deliver your private messages with the utmost stealth and secrecy. But just how do they manage to move through the air in silence? By hardly moving at all once they take flight.
In this gorgeous video from the BBC, researchers conducted an experiment with three birds—a pigeon, a peregrine, and a barn owl—to show how it is possible for that nocturnal feathered creature to fly so quietly that even sophisticated audio equipment can’t record it making any sound as it soars through the air.
You can see, from the decibel waveform of each bird, the dramatic differences in wing movement among the three. The pigeon, with its large body and small wings, requires lots of rapid flapping to stay airborne, resulting in a flight that sounds like Curly of The Three Stooges. The peregrine, with its larger wings, doesn’t need to work as hard, but still has to flap to generate the speed necessary for it to catch its prey, producing a distinct “flap-flap-flap” we associate with a typical bird in flight.
However, the owl requires nothing more to fly than a single flap at take off. Its large wings and small body allow it to simply glide effortlessly once it is airborne, meaning it isn’t moving any air, and therefore not creating any sound. Besides the path of their wings, the flight over the feathers (a slightly cruel choice considering this is a bird experiment) shows how little “turbulence” an owl generates in flight compared to the other two.
And it isn’t your ears deceiving you; the audio equipment they used couldn’t pick up any sound either. Look at this recording (or lack thereof), where the only sound produced from the owl is pre- and post-takeoff. Watch the video again and pay close attention to when the owl actually squawks each time (those large blocks at the beginning and end)—the noise isn’t anywhere near when it is in flight.
If you look closely at both the decibel waveform and the audio recording, you can see an ever-so-slight bump, which appears to happen when the owl begins to ascend again, but even that movement is minuscule, producing a sound that can hardly even be described as a whisper.
The absence of sound might be as simple as a lack of wing movement, but it is a simplicity full of elegance and beauty, rooted in evolutionary efficiency. A predator that needs to expend less energy while hunting for food doesn’t need as much food in the first place, and being able to remain silent when pursuing prey makes it even easier to catch it.
That said, I doubt mice find the noiseless flight of owls quite as cool as we do.
Now, if you’re like me, this has you wondering if there are any other birds that can fly as silently, so I reached out to the National Aviary in Pittsburgh to ask their experts for any similar soundless fliers. They pointed me to the Tawny Frogmouth, an awesome looking bird primarily found in Australia that is night-active and frequently confused for an owl as well. They said the bird has a “similar feather structure to owls giving them the ability to fly almost silently.”
Unfortunately there aren’t any great videos of them in flight available online, but this short one—where a Tawny Frogmouth that fell from a tree takes off from the ground—gives you a very good idea of just how quiet they are too.
Not only that, they have an incredible daytime camouflage that protects them from predators. To really appreciate how cool looking these birds are though, just watch this video of one chilling out in a tree.
You can find out more about these remarkable birds both here and here. These birds might be silent fliers, but we have a feeling we won’t be able to shut up about them anytime soon. What is the most impressive bird you have ever seen fly in person? Soar into our comments section below to let us know.