Great horned owl top gun among predators

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-TqObiYgPnA.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert Hedeen’, ‘The enhanced night vision of the great horned owl makes him an expert predator.’);

The other evening I was refilling my bird feeder located on the edge of the woods at the rear of my house in Loves Park. I was startled when a large bird swooped by not 10 feet away. It was a great horned owl carrying a small cottontail rabbit locked in its talons.

Conspicuous ear tufts about two inches long are responsible for the name of this species, which is among the largest and most powerful owls found in North America (The great gray owl is the largest.). The “horns,” of course, are merely tufts of feathers that serve to identify this bird of prey. No other owl in this country of this size has such characteristic tufts. The so-called long-eared owl is much smaller, and its long “ears” are closer together on the top of the head.

Because of its well-known cry of to-who-hoo-hoo, repeated many times, the great horned is sometimes known as the hoot owl. This magnificent bird is also referred to as “the winged tiger of the air” because of its bloodthirsty habits. Most of the damage attributed to owls is the work of this ferocious predator. His menu regularly includes rabbits, squirrels, chickens, ducks, geese, young turkeys, quail, song birds, rats, mice, and skunks, for which it seems to have a preference despite the skunk’s formidable weapon of chemical defense.

There is little chance for a prey animal to escape the steel-like claws. No warnings are given of the owl’s approach as it glides over fields and along the edge of the forest, as silent as a passing shadow. He is a ruthless, savage killer that is solitary and unsociable, often killing more than it can eat. Yet, this disreputable member of the owl clan is not all bad. There was a study done by an ornithologist over some years in which 124 stomachs of great horned owls were examined, and only 31 were found to contain the remains of wild birds and poultry. The remainder revealed the birds had eaten almost everything else from rodents to insects, a useful habit for a species that is almost universally condemned.

A laboratory exercise in a vertebrate zoology course I took as an undergraduate was to examine owl pellets and try to determine what had passed through the bird’s digestive tract. I think I once identified the remains of at least five different animals in a single pellet.

During the day, the great horned remains concealed in the woods, but no one, I suspect, has ever seen one that was not looking intensely at him, though the bird is not supposed to see well in daylight. During the day, the eyes are mere slits, but he is well aware of what is occurring in his vicinity. The eyes are, however, better adapted than the eyes of most other animals for seeing in dim light. That is the reason they hunt mainly at dusk or in the dark of the night. Under such conditions they have a decided advantage over their prey. Vision combined with keen hearing and their almost noiseless flight allows them to swoop down unheard upon their hapless victims.

Few people have ever managed to domesticate this owl, and they do poorly in zoos. Its disposition is fierce and untamable. Its strength and courage is equal to or better than most birds of prey, including the eagle. It is such a feral creature that it adjusts to confinement with the greatest of difficulty, even when taken as a fledgling from the nest. It is usually sullen and morose, and will frequently attack any attendant who enters the area in which it is confined.

Great horned owls are always few in numbers in the environment they inhabit (in all the years I have been observing nature, I have only seen three in the wild) because of their huge appetites. There are just not enough prey animals in a given area to support very many owls. There was a time when many states placed a bounty on these superb birds, but, as far as I know, this practice has been largely discontinued.

Though many humans regard the great horned owl as an evil creature, it should be remembered that it occupies an important niche in the web of life of any environment in which it decides to set up housekeeping.

Alfred Lord Tennyson may have had the great horned owl in mind when he described nature not as some idyllic Garden of Eden, but “red in fang and claw.”

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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