At the Zoo: Quite a hoot

Injured owls can live out their days in safety at the zoo while also providing the public with a rare look at these remarkable birds.

Visitors to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo now have a chance to see a local bird that despite its size usually remains very much out of sight. The eagle owl is the largest bird of prey in Israel and now several of these accomplished hunters can be seen in a new exhibit. The owls on display are all former patients of the zoo's hospital. Nature reserve wardens and concerned members of the public often bring injured birds to the zoo's clinic. Owls suffer a variety of injuries from manmade sources such as crashing into telegraph poles, electrocution and even being hit by cars. Although many of the owls recover well enough for release in the wild, those that suffer debilitating injuries, preventing them from hunting, are kept at the zoo. Here they can live out their days in safety while also providing the public with a rare look at these remarkable birds. The exhibit opened three months ago and now holds seven owls. Although the owls have remained platonic in their relationships, there is always hope that they may breed. Any offspring released in the wild would help bolster Israel's dwindling bird of prey population. Eagle owls are found throughout Eurasia and are comparable in size to a golden eagle. These secretive birds have a distinctive hoot but shy away from cities, preferring the open country and forests. As nocturnal hunters they are rarely seen during the day, and even at night owls are notoriously quiet in flight, a skill that allows them to pounce unannounced on their prey. Adult owls have a wingspan of up to two meters, enabling them to hunt foxes and even small deer, although mostly they feed on rats, mice and other small rodents. In Western culture owls are often associated with erudition. This dates back to Greek mythology where owls were thought to represent Athena, the goddess of wisdom. According to the zoo's chief veterinarian, Nili Avni-Magen, however, the owl shows no signs of superior avian intelligence, especially not when compared to its more flamboyant cousin, the parrot. Eagle owls can rotate their heads 135 degrees in each direction, a delightful skill that enables them to perch with their backs turned and to keep a sharp eye on their visitors at the same time. Although the owls are on display throughout the day, they become most active during the late afternoon and sunset, perhaps because that is also when they are usually fed.