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White barn owls’ feathers reflect moonlight to stun prey

When barn owls are hunting on moonlit nights, you’d think conspicuous bright white plumage would be a disadvantage. But a new study shows the opposite is true—white barn owls have better luck at hunting in moonlit conditions than red barn owls, The New York Times reports. Researchers discovered the difference in hunting success in a group of owls they had been monitoring for about 30 years. To find out why the white owls performed better in moonlight, the scientists threatened captive voles with stuffed owls of both colors, and found that the voles froze up to 5 seconds longer when faced with a white owl in conditions similar to a full moon. There was no difference in vole freezing times in new moon conditions, the team reports this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution. The research suggests moonlight can select for brighter owls—even though red owls may be better camouflaged.

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