Courtesy photo
Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Services Coordinator Barbara Michel helps the kids dissect an owl pellet during a program about owls. Special programs for kids are being offered at Pahranagat each Saturday this month.

Did you know that owls do not have a sense of smell? Therefore, they are not bothered at all when they catch one of their favorite prey, the skunk.

Barbara Michel, Visitors Services Coordinator at the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge and Moapa Valley Refuge, is conducting a series of programs this month about wildlife native to this part of southern Nevada.

Last Saturday, the first program was about owls. A few local families and their elementary age children attended.

She explained that in western culture, the owl is often thought of as being wise, but that’s not the case in other cultures. “In some Native American cultures,” she noted, “owls are very bad. They are tricksters and not considered wise at all. Interesting that the same animal could be viewed so entirely different. The great horned owl is the one of the most prominent at the Pahranagat and Moapa Refuge.”

The large eyes of the owl are designed with many more rods than cones, to be able to see well at night. Michel said, “If we look at a grapefruit, and if an owl’s head was the same size as a human’s head, their eyes would be the size of a grapefruit.”

Because an owl’s night vision is so good, Michel told the audience, “Owls would be able to read a newspaper by the light of a candle from hundreds of feet away, provided owls could read. But owls are not able to distinguish colors, only black and white, which is the main reason they are most active at night.”

Because of the design of the owl’s feathers, with ridges on the wings, it creates no sound, so you cannot hear an owl flying, Michel said. “That helps them to swoop down on their prey.”

Owls also have no teeth, so whatever prey they eat is swallowed whole.

She said, “The owl has two stomachs and the food goes to the upper stomach, where it is digested by stomach acids. The nutritional part moves to the second stomach, but whatever is not digested, like hair, fur, bones, etc., remains in the upper stomach and is later regurgitated up in the form of a dark pellet.”

Following her presentation, the children in the audience were each given an owl pellet to dissect and see what might be inside. Some found small bones, a bit of hair, and one found a small mouse skull. Another found a small bird skull, evidenced by the beak.

Michel explained that the sharp talons of the owl’s legs, used to grasp and hold prey, are probably able to exert about five times the amount of pressure a human could. She asked the kids in the audience to, “grab hold of your arm with one hand and squeeze as hard as you can. Imagine then that the pressure of an owl’s talons would be five or six times harder than that.”

Derek Bowman, of Alamo, said he brought his family to the program “because the kids love to get out into nature and learn about animals. We like to give them opportunities to have practical experience and knowledge.”

Crisanne Walch, of Alamo, said she brought her kids because, “We thought it would be something interesting and fun to do. Saw it listed on Facebook.”

The remaining programs at the Refuge are free and open to the public and include:

Feb. 10, 3-3:45 – Desert tortoise

Feb. 17, 10-10:45 – Bird eggs and nests

Feb. 24, 10-10:45 – Dragonflies and damselflies