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OWLS’ LIMBER NECK CAN REALLY TURN YOUR HEAD

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Question: Why do owls seem to turn their heads 180 degrees without turning their bodies?

Answer: Owls are constantly doing that Exorcist thing. The head seems to rotate on ball bearings. As you approach an owl from behind you think you're dealing with a cuddly, soft bird but then suddenly the head pivots obscenely and it stares at you directly over its back with those big appalled eyeballs that seem to suggest that you will burn in hell. Creepy.

Owls, we have learned, not only can turn their heads 180 degrees, but can keep turning them even further, a full 270 degrees. In other words an owl can turn its head to the right and look over its left shoulder. (Try that, Linda Blair.)

The swivel-headedness of owls is a necessity. "Unlike many birds they have significantly forward-positioned eyes," says Pam Osten, curator of birds at the Baltimore Zoo. Owls, with their flat facial disk, have a visual field of only 110 degrees, compared to about 180 degrees for humans and 340 degrees for a homing pigeon.

The limited visual field is more than compensated for by the improved binocular vision. An owl is basically a pair of eyeballs with wings attached. It is a sit-and-wait predator, scanning the terrain for any sign of movement. It sees clearly at night. If it hears something in the woods behind it, the head can silently pivot and search for the noise-making creature, the body remaining still.

"The neck is fairly short and composed of 14 cervical vertebrae, which allows for enough rotation of the neck that an owl can turn its head and peer directly over its back," writes Paul A. Johnsgard in "North American Owls."

An owl's softness is related to its quietness. The tiny fibers that make up the owl's feathers are not bonded together on their outermost edges as in most birds. This makes it a bit harder to fly but easier to fly quietly.

Are owls wise? No, they just look a little bit like they're wearing glasses. The truth is, if there's any creature on Earth that really doesn't need glasses, it's the owl.

Question: Why do convicted criminals routinely insist on their innocence?

Answer: Go to any prison and ask around and you will discover that there's hardly anyone there who's guilty. Your typical inmate will say, yes, I have occasionally been known to employ a firearm in the commission of a felony, but no, I was nowhere near the liquor store the night it was robbed and in fact the only reason the police found me with my hand in the cash register was that I was teleported there by Kirk and Spock.

Why don't people come clean more often? Why not just admit it?

Because there's a sucker born every minute, says Park Dietz, a noted psychiatrist and criminologist.

"All offenders know that there are lots of people in the public who are gullible and if they continue to claim their innocence there will still be people sufficiently gullible to hire them, marry them, buy their wares and write their biographies. Why give up those opportunities?" Dietz asks.

Another possibility: They suffer from denial, in which they simply cannot reconcile the crime with their self-image. "Most often that's the individual who is lying to himself," Dietz said.

The bigger question is why people do terrible things to begin with. Dietz famously declares that 5 percent of the adult urban male population is sociopathic. A sociopath used to be called a psychopath but that conjures up images of drooling, wild-eyed maniacs, Dietz says, and even sociopath is an antiquated word. Experts now prefer to say that these people demonstrate something called "anti-social personality disorder."

"Formerly known as evil," Dietz says.

Helium Update:

Last week we mentioned that helium comes from oil wells. Not quite true, but fortunately this is the summertime, when journalism standards are lower everywhere.

Helium comes from natural gas fields. (Natural gas is sometimes found on top of oil fields, and sometimes not. In the business you'd say that the gas is either associated or disassociated with the oil.) Helium is found in extractable quantities in relatively few natural gas fields, and in fact most of the world's commercial helium comes from only five fields, two in Texas, one in Oklahoma, one that spans the Kansas/Colorado border and a giant field that runs from Texas through Oklahoma to Kansas.

The bad news is that there's not a lot of helium on the planet and it's increasingly in demand. Helium has all kinds of neat properties: It's inert, it has tiny molecular size, it conducts heat, it has a strangely low boiling point, and so on. Thus it's used for production of fiber optics, the decompression of deep-sea divers, the detection of leaks in spacecraft, blimp inflation, etc. The demand grows by about 5 percent a year.

You can't make the stuff in the lab. Someday we are bound to run out of it.

"It's a finite reserve, and we are wasting the product," said one helium producer we contacted.