How white-feathered barn owls terrify their prey into submission: ‘It’s like a ghost coming on it’

Scientists have found white owls are superior in their hunting ability to their darker counterparts.

It’s seems humans aren’t the only species to be left spooked by ghostly white figures.

A study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution explored the colour of barn owls, and revealed that their prey are significantly more terrified by the lighter varieties of bird.

Scientists used GPS trackers to monitor the hunting success of red and white barn owls under different phases of the moon and found that white owls were more easily seen by their prey on moonlit nights. Despite this, the lighter owls were more effective hunters.

To further test the theory, the researchers attached stuffed owls of different colours to zip wires and swung them over the heads of voles. They found that on a moonlit night, the voles stood motionless for five seconds longer when under a white owl.

‘The vole is so scared,’ said Alexandre Roulin, from the University of Lausanne. ‘It’s like a ghost coming on it; it really panics.’

The experiment involved a two-meter zip wire, dour barn owls preserved by taxidermists — two white and two red — and more than 40 unfortunate voles who were rounded up to take part.

The voles were placed in tanks on the ground and an owl was slid down the line to the opposite end of the room. They were then released two more times to simulate the effect of multiple attacks that the birds often perform on their prey.

Halogen lights were placed in the room to mimic full moon conditions and the response of the voles was recorded with infra-red cameras.

The researchers observed that light reflected off the white owls’ feathers, exploiting the voles’ natural aversion to bright light.

In Britain, the barn owl is largely white, but in other countries a greater proportion are reddish brown.

Professor Roulin believes the darker varieties may persist due to other benefits of brown feathers, such as the protection of melanin.