The Ural owl is gorgeous and floofy. Just don’t mess with its nest.
That’s not a joke by the way. Females have been known to dive-bomb anything that comes near, including humans, to the point they’ve even killed themselves on impact. Fledglings in particular are fiercely defended, probably because they’re a delicious snack for many a fox or pine marten. But despite the odd kamikaze, the Ural owl is one of the happier conservation stories.
Named after the Ural mountains, which stretch 2,500 km (1,550 miles) through central Russia, the Ural owl makes its home in tall conifer or mixed forests from Scandinavia all the way to Japan. A wide range can mean a vast wardrobe, and while the northerners are grey and white with a snow-dappled facial ring, the southerners veer towards brown and even black.
The Ural owl used to be more widespread, but since it prefers unsightly hollow or broken trees, forest management has taken its toll, and it’s often bested by the eagle owl. Hunting has also given it a reason to screech, for example in 1926 it became extinct in Germany. Fortunately, it’s now considered “Least Concern” as it’s been reintroduced via conservation programmes, and to combat habitat loss, artificial nest boxes have been set up in places like Finland – hence its dive-bombing humans. At least it takes family life seriously!
Like many birds of prey, Ural owls mate for life, and during courtship, the pair will sing a duet of the female’s high-pitched hoarse cry and the male’s low rhythmic booming. [Insert modern music grumble here.] The female may be larger, but it’s the male who claims his territory by booming from different perches, and once the 3-5 chicks arrive, he’ll hunt while the female stands guard or incubates. Outside of breeding season they’re pretty much strangers, but peace and quiet away from courtship and kids is probably better for catching food!
For instance, the Ural owl’s feathers have serrated edges for a silent flight, and it can hear prey under 30 cm (12 inches) of snow. Voles tend to be top of the menu in winter, but it’s been known to take other mammals up to the size of a hare, as well as frogs and small birds. As a strix owl, the Ural owl doesn’t have any ear tufts, and has large eyes to cope with the woodland gloom. They’re so big that it can’t really move them, and has to turn its head almost 360 degrees to look around. It can do this thanks to a combination of twice as many cervical vertebrae as humans, and specialised arteries and arrangement thereof so it doesn’t cut off blood flow to the head.
It turns out home isn’t where the heart(-shaped head) is either, because the Ural owl rarely ventures more than 3km (1.8 miles) from its nest. Its calls can be heard up to 2km (1.2 miles) away, however, so it’s a happy medium where you can listen out for your love but escape the noisy neighbours.
Latin: Strix uralensis
What? Speckled wood or “earless” owl
Where? From northern Europe to Japan, in tall conifer or mixed forests
How big? Wingspan of 1.2 metres / 4 feet
Endangered? No, currently Least Concern
Probable motto: I’m loud for love but silent for supper.
They look beautiful. Do they need my help at all?
The Ural owl has a wide range and its population appears stable, so apart from the odd tussle with the housing market or an eagle owl, it seems okay at the moment.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing
Amos, Jonathan. 2013. “How owls swivel their heads“. BBC News.
Fiegl, Anna, and Zacek, Sven. 2012. “A love affair with the Ural owl“. National Geographic.
Kontiainen, Pekka et al. 2009. “Aggressive Ural owl mothers recruit more offspring“. Behavioral Ecology 20(4): 789-796.
Poulsen, Thomas M., and Yastrebov, Yevgeny V. No date. “Ural mountains“. Britannica.com.
“Strix uralensis“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
“Ural owl“. 2012. The Rainforest Alliance.
“Ural owl“. No date. New Forest Wildlife Park.
“Ural owl“. No date. Paignton Zoo.
“Ural owl“. No date. Zoo Leipzig.
Vrezec, Al. 2009. “Melanism and plumage variation in macroura Ural Owl“. Dutch Birding 31: 159-170.
“Worldwide groups of owls“. No date. The Falconry Centre UK.
Featured image credit: “Ural Owl” by photoguru81