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This article is from
Creation 40(2):56, April 2018

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As silent as a flying owl



If you watch an owl flapping or gliding, it’s like viewing film footage with the sound on ‘mute’—they are so silent. That’s because their wings have velvety surfaces, comb-like serrations (see photo) at the leading edge, and trailing-edge fringes which dramatically suppress the sound of air rushing over the wings. Therefore the owl’s prey (mice and voles) can be taken by surprise.

Also, with wing noise suppressed to a level below the owl’s own hearing range, they can better hear (and thus locate) prey while flying—crucial for hunting at night.

These features have caught the attention of researchers in the dramatically-expanding field of biomimetics or bio-inspiration, whereby engineers copy biological design. Owl wings have already inspired quieter fan blades in computers. More recently researchers using wind tunnel facilities have explored these noise suppression characteristics in more detail, especially the leading-edge serrations. Each is “the tip of a single barb, having a very complicated 3D shape”, and its size and orientation differ according to its position.

CC-BY-SA 3.0 Kersti via Wikipediaowl-feather

The owl wing design also efficiently resolves the trade-off between effective sound suppression and aerodynamic force production. In striving to understand how, the researchers see an ultimate goal of mimicking those design aspects across many man-made technologies. For example, so the blades of multi-rotor drones can ‘chop’ the air more quietly, without unduly sacrificing lift; similarly in other aircraft, wind turbines, and fluid machinery in general.

There’s some way yet to go, though, before the sound-suppressing design features of owl wings are fully understood, and man’s mimicry of them in aviation technology comes to fruition. Which raises the question: how did owls come to have such enviable design characteristics in the first place? Design implies, well, that they were designed, which of course, implies a Designer. However, don’t be surprised in this age of widespread evolutionary belief if you don’t hear that proclaimed from the rooftops. When it comes to crediting the Creator, many today would rather that be kept as silent as an owl in flight (see Romans 1:18).

References and notes

  1. I.e. so it is silent at frequencies above 2 kHz. (Mice and voles hear most acutely at 2–20 kHz, while the owl’s hearing range is 3–6 kHz.) Lilley, G.M., A study of the silent flight of the owl, 4th AIAA/CEAS Aeroacoustics Conference 2340:1–6, 1998 | doi:10.2514/6.1998-2340. Return to text.
  2. Dawson, E., PC Authority, October 2006, p. 15, also: A quiet fan of the Designer’s, Creation 29(1):11, December 2006; creation.com/fan. Return to text.
  3. Rao, C. et al., Owl-inspired leading-edge serrations play a crucial role in aerodynamic force production and sound suppression, Bioinspiration & Biomimetics 12(4):6008, 4 July 2017. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Edward R.
Thanks for another great example of both design and biomimetrics. But, a question arises as well. Any thought about a pre-Fall purpose for this design, before the curse inclined them to surprise their fellow creatures for lunch dates? Perhaps the nothing more than the glory of the strenuous activity of flight performed in utter silence?
Terence W.
Great article, thanks so much for posting it. However, I have a question: In the Garden of Eden what was the purpose of the owl's silent flight? I realise that today it is used for the purpose of hunting, however in the garden there was no hunting and all animals were vegetarian. It seems as if the flight dynamics of an owl were designed and as such cannot be part of the owl loosing genetic information due to mutation. Could you please explain this?

Terence Wood.
Martyn M.
Great article but it does raise the question of did predatory design precede, perhaps in anticipation of, the fall?
David Catchpoole
Good question, which other correspondents (below) have also raised, and which we were never going to be able to do justice to in the original article above when it appeared in the restricted space of the Creation magazine's back page. But online-only articles, and in our published books, there is no such space restriction, and we have addressed this issue many times. See, e.g., The Creation Answers Book, Chapter 6: How did 'bad things' come about? (You can see this online by going to creation.com/cab, then clicking on the Chapter 6 pdf.)

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