It's a dark, chilly night and you step outside quickly to let the dog out one last time before going to bed. As you stand there waiting for Fido to finish his business, you hear a soft "Whooo Whooo" carried on the breeze. You don't actu Kansas House approves child abuse reporting changes

Owls are mysterious creatures with their nocturnal habits and wise appearance. They are part of a larger group of birds collectively known as "raptors" or "birds of prey." Raptors are meat-eating birds that have sharp talons for capturing food and a sharply curved beak for eating it. This group includes birds such as hawks, falcons, eagles, owls and vultures and range in size from the tiny collared falconet to the large California condor. The diet of a bird of prey can vary depending on the location of a particular bird. Most raptors in Kansas are opportunistic feeders, meaning they will eat any type of small animal they can find, including mice, voles, small birds, lizards, snakes and frogs.

Because these birds hunt their food while flying, they generally have amazing senses.

Owls, in particular, excel in the field of vision and hearing. Their vision is so exceptional that they are able to see a mouse that is more than a football field away. In fact, the eyes of an owl are so large that there is no room in their heads for the muscles that allow eyes to move back and forth. If you are ever fortunate enough to look at an owl up close, you will notice that the eyes always stay in the same position and do not move side to side or up and down. Because of this, the owl must turn its entire head to compensate for the lack of eye mobility. Many people believe that the owl can turn its head a complete circle, or 360 degrees. This is not true. The owl can only turn its head 270 degrees (about three-fourths of a circle), which is still a lot farther than the half circle of 180 degrees a human can turn their head.

As if its sense of sight wasn't amazing enough, the owl also has an astonishing ability to hear the slightest sounds. Its flat face acts like a satellite dish that collects sound waves and funnels them toward its ears, which are hidden underneath the feathers. The ears themselves are also interesting, with one of them located higher on the head than the other. This combination of features allows the owl to pinpoint the exact location of an animal, which is really helpful in the winter when their food tends to form burrows under the snow.

Kansas is home to 10 species of owls, ranging in size from the tiny burrowing owl to the large great horned owl. While still considered part of the 10 Kansas owl species, the tiny northern saw-whet owl and the large snowy owl are usually rare winter visitors. However, in recent months there has been a large influx of snowy owls in the state of Kansas. This beautiful bird, which has become even more popular thanks to Hedwig in the Harry Potter series, has been spotted in the lower 48 states in unusual numbers this winter.

Snowy owls typically nest in the Arctic tundra and migrate south during winter in search of food. Very rarely do we see this many snowy owls so far south. In fact, the last time there were this many snowy owls was the winter of 1974-1975. This season's first snowy owl in Kansas was reported on Nov. 15, 2011, and since then there have been more than 100 sightings, the majority of which appear to be juvenile or first-year birds. Scientists believe that a large abundance of lemmings (the favored food of the snowy owl) led to a very successful 2011 breeding season. However, when winter arrived the food supply was quickly depleted due to the increased owl population. Therefore, the snowy owls need to travel farther south to find food.

Whether they are large or small, owls truly are beautiful creatures. We can often walk right by one during the day and not even notice it quietly resting in a tree. There are many owls right here in Garden City and even though you may not see them, you might be able to find some of their pellets (regurgitated fur, feathers and bones from prey) lying under their trees. If you would like to see one during the day, you can always stop by the Marie Osterbuhr Aviary and view our burrowing owl on display in the building. And the next time you hear that distinctive hooting in the night, perhaps you will be lucky enough to glimpse the shadows of their wings as they fly silently by.