Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 196, Issue 3, pp 227–240 | Cite as

Target-approaching behavior of barn owls (Tyto alba): influence of sound frequency

  • Martin SingheiserEmail author
  • Dennis T. T. Plachta
  • Sandra Brill
  • Peter Bremen
  • Robert F. van der Willigen
  • Hermann Wagner
Original Paper


We studied the influence of frequency on sound localization in free-flying barn owls by quantifying aspects of their target-approaching behavior to a distant sound source during ongoing auditory stimulation. In the baseline condition with a stimulus covering most of the owls hearing range (1–10 kHz), all owls landed within a radius of 20 cm from the loudspeaker in more than 80% of the cases and localization along the azimuth was more accurate than localization in elevation. When the stimulus contained only high frequencies (>5 kHz) no changes in striking behavior were observed. But when only frequencies from 1 to 5 kHz were presented, localization accuracy and precision decreased. In a second step we tested whether a further border exists at 2.5 kHz as suggested by optimality models. When we compared striking behavior for a stimulus having energy from 2.5 to 5 kHz with a stimulus having energy between 1 and 2.5 kHz, no consistent differences in striking behavior were observed. It was further found that pre-takeoff latency was longer for the latter stimulus than for baseline and that center frequency was a better predictor for landing precision than stimulus bandwidth. These data fit well with what is known from head-turning studies and from neurophysiology.


Auditory Spatial hearing Sound localization Interaural time difference Interaural level difference Barn owl 





Center frequency


Ellipsoid mean vector


Inferior colliculus


Interaural level difference


Interaural time difference


Kolmogorov–Smirnov test


Kolmogorov–Smirnov 2 dimensions 2 samples test


Standard deviation


Sound pressure level







We thank Dr. Michael Schiek (FZ Juelich) for helpful discussions and suggestions concerning the statistics.

Supplementary material

Online Resource 1 This movie illustrates the target approaching behavior of the owls inside the flight room. The owl is sitting on the perch waiting for the presentation of the signal. When the stimulus is presented, the owl turns its head and takes off. In a straight flight path, it approaches the target speaker (dark spot in the front) and lands on it. After approaching, the owl turns around, waiting for the LED to be switched on as a “Go-back” signal (MP4 673 kb)

Online Resource 2 This movie shows the same trial as Online Resource 1 but in slow motion (5 frames/s) (MP4 1172 kb)

Online Resource 3 This movie shows the flight back to the perch. The owl is waiting on the target unless a small LED above the perch is turned on. The reflections of the LED can be seen on the small table behind the perch. When the “Go-back” signal is given, the owl immediately returns to the perch and awaits the experimenter to enter the flight room and rewarding the owl (MP4 397 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin Singheiser
    • 1
    Email author
  • Dennis T. T. Plachta
    • 1
    • 2
  • Sandra Brill
    • 1
  • Peter Bremen
    • 1
    • 3
  • Robert F. van der Willigen
    • 1
    • 3
  • Hermann Wagner
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute for Biology IIRWTH Aachen UniversityAachenGermany
  2. 2.IMTEK, Institut für Mikrosystemtechnik, Lehrstuhl für Biomedizinische MikrotechnikFreiburgGermany
  3. 3.Department of Biophysics, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and BehaviourRadbound University NijmegenNijmegenThe Netherlands

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