Movement and direction of movement of a simulated prey affect the success rate in barn owl Tyto alba attack

Eran Shifferman, David Eilam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The present study was aimed at testing a novel idea, that rather than maximizing their distance from a predator during close-distance encounters, prey species are better off moving directly or diagonally toward the predator in order to increase the relative speed and confine the attack to a single available clashing point. We used two tamed barn owls Tyto alba to measure the rate of attack success in relation to the direction of prey movement. A dead mouse or chick was used to simulate the prey, pulled to various directions by means of a transparent string during the owl's attack. Both owls showed a high success rate in catching stationary compared with moving food items (90% and 21%, respectively). Success was higher when the prey moved directly away, rather than towards the owls (50% and 18%, respectively). Strikingly, these owls had 0% success in catching food items that were pulled sideways. This failure to catch prey that move sideways may reflect constraints in postural head movements in aerial raptors that cannot move the eyes but rather move the entire head in tracking prey. So far there is no evidence that defensive behavior in terrestrial prey species takes advantage of the above escape directions to lower rates of predator success. However, birds seem to adjust their defensive tactics in the vertical domain by taking-off at a steep angle, thus moving diagonally toward the direction of an approaching aerial predator. These preliminary findings warrant further studies in barn owls and other predators, in both field and laboratory settings, to uncover fine predator head movements during hunting, the corresponding defensive behavior of the prey, and the adaptive significance of these behaviors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)111-116
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2004


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