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article imageAviation engineers study flight of the Great Gray Owls in Canada

By Nancy Houser     Nov 25, 2013 in Science
Vancouver - An international team of Canadian research engineers is studying nocturnal Great Gray Owls, due to their exceptional flight and hunting abilities. The goal is to improve on the designs of aircraft and submarines, swooping onto their prey with no warning,
The Great Gray Owl is the largest owl in North America yet weighs only 26 to 52 ounces. It is also called the Bearded Owl, Cinereous Owl, Great Grey Owl, Lapland Owl, Phantom of the North, Sooty Owl, Spectral Owl, and Spruce Owl. It hunts by perching on treetops or high branches, watching and listen for prey on the ground below its stance.
Characteristics of the owl for research engineers
The Great Grey Owl hunts by ear, hearing and hovering above the ground until it sees and its prey. It hovers above the ground, plunging down at the exact moment to take its prey under the surface. Their flight pattern is slow, with deep wingbeats, during the daylight.
"Owls are remarkable predators. They hunt in almost complete darkness, using only their ears to weave around and capture their prey," said Justin Jaworski to the CTV News, an assistant professor in Lehigh University's Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics and one of the lead researchers on the project.
Great Gray Owl
What makes the Great Gray Owl is unique is their talent for "detecting and seizing prey under thick layers of snow and ice." The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that one Great Gray Owl had plunged through a thick crust of snow that would support a 175-pound person.
A non-migratory bird, this is an owl that inhabits the boreal forests in Canada, northern Europe and Siberia. North America ranges also includes limited areas of the Cascade forests, Sierra Nevada, Rocky Mountains and smaller ranges of the mountain states. However, the Great Gray Owls have been known to become nomadic, locating to southern Canada and northern United States. Unfortunately, the harvesting of forests is the greatest threat to this Gray Owl.
This Canadian study has been going on for three years, long enough to discover that the downy material located on the top of the owl's wings acts to reduce noise in a very unique way.
Unique features of the Great Gray Owl's wing features
The study has found that there are three wing features unique to owls.
(1) Comb of stiff feathers along the wing's leading edge
(2) A group of evently spaced fibers
(3) A flexible fringe on the trailing edge of the wing
(4) Soft downy material that covers the top of the wing
The research engineers have been studying how these features contribute to the owls' acoustic abilities. Their main focus was number three, "the serrated trailing edge of the wing," as they considered it an area that creates the most noise in birds and airplanes.
The aviation engineers figured they can unlock the key to reduce noises generated by the blade or wings, with applications for aircraft, wind turbines and other mechanical devices.
"How we got onto this actually was the navy was interested in maybe designing quieter submarine holes, or at least being able to tailor the structure of a submarine hole to be quieter under water," Jaworski said in the CTV article.
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