Neuroethology of prey capture in the barn owl (Tyto alba L.)

J Physiol Paris. 2013 Jan-Apr;107(1-2):51-61. doi: 10.1016/j.jphysparis.2012.03.004. Epub 2012 Apr 7.


Barn owls are a model system for studying prey capture. These animals can catch mice by hearing alone, but use vision whenever light conditions allow this. The silent flight, the frontally oriented eyes, and the facial ruffs are specializations that evolved to optimize prey capture. The auditory system is characterized by high absolute sensitivity, a use of interaural time difference for azimuthal sound-localization over almost the total hearing range up to at least 9 kHz, and the use of interaural level difference for elevational sound localization in the upper frequency range. Response latencies towards auditory targets were shortened by covert attention, while overt attention helped to orient towards salient visual objects. However, only 20% of the fixation movements could be explained by the saliency of the fixated objects, suggesting a top-down control of attention. In a visual-search experiment the birds turned earlier and more often towards and spent more time at salient objects. The visual system also exhibits high absolute sensitivity, while the spatial resolution is not particularly high. Last but not least, head movements may be classified as fixations, translations, and rotations combined with translations. These motion primitives may be combined to complex head-movement patterns. With the expected easy availability of genetic techniques for specialists in the near future and the possibility to apply the findings in biomimetic devices prey capture in barn owls will remain an exciting field in the future.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cues
  • Flight, Animal / physiology*
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Predatory Behavior / physiology*
  • Sound Localization / physiology
  • Strigiformes / physiology*