“Ghost owl” hits window and makes a real impression

By Liann Bobechko »Liann Bobechko

July 18th, 2011


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There has been quite a flap about the story of an owl that recently crashed into a window in the town of Kendal, in the UK. When the bird hit the window, it left behind a striking image that showed enough detail of its feathers, face, and beak that experts were able to identify it as a tawny owl.

The reports are attributing the print left on the window to “powder down.” Since I didn’t know what that was, my reputation as our resident NatureGirl was on the line, so I looked it up on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It explains that instead of molting these powder down feathers, they grow continuously “but disintegrate at the tips into something like a fine talcum powder. The powder permeates the other feathers, presumably to provide waterproofing, although the exact function is not well understood.”

Fair enough. Only problem is that it also says that powder down is only found in certain groups of birds, including pigeons and herons. The full list, I discovered is: herons, storks, bustards, pigeons, woodpeckers, frogmouths, parrots, and cockatoos.Hmmm, no owls there…

So what’s up with these owls and their ghostly impression? Someone asked that question on the website of the much-beloved Sibley Guides by David Allan Sibley (this guy is kind of superstar of the birder world). And here is what the man himself said:

According to Kempenaers et al, owls are not one of the groups known to have powder down. It’s possible that they do have it and it hasn’t been identified yet, but more likely that the imprints they leave behind are just feather oil and dust.

Powder down or no, I just hope our resident great blue heron keeps well away from the windows at our cottage, for the sake of both bird and window!

Check out other bird-hits-window pictures here.

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Liann Bobechko