No, it’s not because they want to fight ‘til they see the sunlight, though they are nocturnal hunters.
A few months ago, a video surfaced showing some recently rehabilitated barn owls apparently dancing in response to hearing a track by pop artist Kesha. When their handler put the music in front of the owls, they turned from side to side, as though in a swiveling office chair, in the direction of the phone. Take a look:
These dancing dinosaurs continue a storied history of dancing owls on YouTube. I found no less than four videos on the first page of results. Even if you agree with the owls’ taste in music, they definitely aren’t dancing in the same way that we do. So what are they doing? I think they are trying to figure out an auditory landscape with music in it.
Owls have hearing so finely tuned it’s hard to imagine it. They can survey an auditory environment and pick out sounds in three-dimensional space, locking onto prey in pitch darkness or visually impenetrable shrubbery. The raptors effectively see sound using asymmetrical ears. Unlike humans with symmetrical ears in the same place on each side, owls have differently sized ears that are at different places on each side of the head. Ear size can differ by as much as 50 percent in some owls and ear orientation by as much as 15 degrees.
“In practice, this means that if a sound source (e.g. mouse) moves away from the line of sight while the owl remains stationary, the reception in one ear will decrease with extreme rapidity while it will do so more slowly in the other. The owl will turn its head to equalize the sound signals, thus placing the mouse directly in front of it (in its line of vision),” according to the Houston Audubon [PDF].
Owl brains take the slightly different information hitting each ear and make calculations to pinpoint the spot of a hiding mouse or other prey animal. Barn owls—the Kesha-loving owls in the video above—have another evolutionary trick up their feathered sleeves: large facial disks.
While most owls have bowl-shaped feathers surrounding each of their eyes, barn owls have very pronounced facial disks that actively direct sound towards their asymmetric ears. Owls can even orient the feathers in these disks to better hear incoming sounds—like changing the distance of a magnifying glass to better see an image.
So why are those barn owls shakin’ it to Kesha? I think we are seeing the owls trying to hone-in on the source of the music and constantly adjusting their sonic magnifying glasses. Perhaps the speakers in the phone distort the sounds enough that the owls can’t get an exact fix on the source, hence their movement. Imagine how the owls typically “triangulate” sounds. There has to be less adjustment involved in locating the few peeps of a mouse in adjacent grasses than in pinpointing the direction of blasting bass and vocals from a speaker.
Though barn owls may be fantastic listeners and passable dancers, you do not want to hear them sing—they sound like nightmares on a chalkboard:
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor of Nerdist Industries. Follow the geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.