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February 19, 2009 - 7:05am

Great Horned Owl: Silent, Stealthful & Lethal

posted by JIM NIGRO in outdoors.

I haven’t seen our resident Great Horned Owl in some time now. I hear her once in a while, sometimes after taking the dogs out prior to sunrise. Or the crows let us know she’s about with their harassing cacophony. Being Great Horned owls are among the first to nest, even as early as late January, maybe she’s tending a clutch of eggs – or preparing to.

The last time I actually saw her was while canoeing with my grandson Sam. We heard the crows long before we saw the owl. The crows finally quieted down and we continued paddling upstream. That’s when my grandson got his first look at the awesome sight of a Great Horned Owl up close and on the wing. The owl had roosted in a black willow on the creek bank. She took flight as we drew near, willing to take her chances with the crows.

It might at first seem like a bad choice on her part, but perhaps she had good reason. Maybe she remembered me as one of the guys who tried to swipe her meal.

A late summer canoeing-fishing trip a couple years back resulted in one of those wildlife dramas that occur only when no one thinks to bring a camera.

Two days earlier I had hooked and lost a sizeable northern pike. At the time I was on the Tonawanda, about two hundred yards upstream from our home.  

The following Monday, John Lawrence and I returned in an attempt to relocate the big fish.

We weren’t far from where I had hooked the pike when John said “There’s an owl!”

“Where?” I asked, looking into the trees.

“It’s right there! On the bank!”

Along the east bank, right at the water’s edge, a mature Great Horned Owl was straddling a very-much alive hen mallard. One of the duck’s wings was swept back at an odd angle, obviously broken (actually, “mangled” would be a better word) during the owl’s attack. Judging from the owl’s size, about 26 inches tall, it was probably a female.

“Let’s get closer,” said I. We paddled in for a closer look. John, seated in the business end of the canoe, didn’t mind. He was in the bow, scant feet from a very intense-looking bird of prey with piercing eyes.  

Glowering at us, the owl stood its ground, not willing to give up the duck.

A notoriously nocturnal bird of prey, she pounced on that mallard at 4 pm. The fact that she hunted with the sun high in the sky came as no surprise. Besides being lethal birds of prey, Great Horned Owls are creatures of opportunity.

I was still in my teens when I became intrigued with the Great Horned Owl. My first encounter was at extremely close range, and awe-inspiring to say the least. It was late spring and I was hiking a clear-cut that would lead to the Hawley farm where I might find a woodchuck or two. There were woodlots on both sides of the clear-cut and from the woods to the east came the sound of crows, both numerous and frenzied. Though not far away, I couldn’t see them as the foliage was dense - both the woodland canopy and its understory.   Moments later – and with no warning whatsoever – this larger than life feathered critter with an incredible wing span exited the woods directly in front of me. Momentarily stunned, I literally stopped in my tracks. Seeing me as it cleared the wood line, the owl banked sharply to the right and kept flying along the clear-cut.

It took a few moments before I realized what I had seen. I knew it was a bird of prey, I just wasn’t exactly sure of the species.  I knew it wasn’t a hawk as it had a big round head. And there was something else strange, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on - at least not right away. Once realizing I had my first encounter with a mature Great Horned Owl, I set about to do some homework. Not long afterward I learned just what it  was about the owl that made the moment a bit surreal. Despite its size, it hadn’t made any noise at all. Even though passing by within spitting distance, the owl flew in total silence. Its feathers are made for silent flight. That’s how it hunts, like a stealth fighter of the woodlands. There is no “swooshing” sound as air passes through its feathers.

The sight of the Great Horned Owl emerging from the woods with no warning and passing so closely is etched in my mind. Up until that moment I was under the impression all owls were the size of the “wise” bird pictured on a bag of potato chips. I also learned that crows and owls have an intense dislike of one another.  

In addition to hunting in silence, the Great Horned owl possesses a powerful, razor-sharp beak, needle-sharp talons and the ability to swivel its head nearly 280 degrees 

Having gotten my attention that day long ago, I find the Great Horned Owl both fascinating and lethal. Through the years I have been made aware of just how deadly they are.

I’ve heard some great owl stories from folks who have spent considerable time in the wilds. Author and naturalist, the late Jack Denton Scott once documented a Great Horned Owl attack on a human. “The man should have known better,” Scott said of the ranger that was attacked. “But there is a lot of boy in man, and the ranger was wearing a muskrat fur cap while making his late afternoon rounds in the wilds of northern Minnesota. He never heard a sound until the fury fell upon him.”  The owl apparently targeted the muskrat cap thinking it was something to eat – or maybe not. Mother Nature is not without mistakes, nor does she always play by the rules. The ranger did not survive the attack.

The late Don Meyers once told me of driving down Sour Springs Rd. at dusk. Alongside the road is a small pond with a mallard house. “I was watching a muskrat swim across the surface of that pond,” he stated. The evening was calm, the surface placid, excepting the muskrat’s wake. Out of nowhere a large shadow swoops. “This big owl snatched that muskrat right off the water. It happened so close I could see the muskrat’s feet scurrying in mid-air.”    

Jim Joyner of Alabama, NY is an avid outdoorsman who spends a good deal of the year hunting, fishing and canoeing near his cabin in the southern tier. A while back Jim had an experience similar to the aforementioned ranger. Seated in his tree stand while bow hunting, a Great Horned Owl flew in without warning and knocked Jim’s hat off. Jim was fortunate in that the owl’s talons latched onto his hat alone.            

Going off the beaten path isn’t always necessary to encounter a Great Horned Owl.  All that’s needed is a food supply – and a city-dwelling owl has no problem locating items to feed on. Squirrel’s, domesticated animals such as cats, and barnyard fowl, like baby ducks have all found their way on the horned owl’s menu. A few years ago a friend of mine attempted to raise ducklings in his back yard. One morning he noticed one or two ducks were missing. A few mornings later more baby ducks were gone. My friend had no idea what could be preying on the ducks as he heard no commotion during the night. His first thoughts were a neighbor’s cat or maybe a marauding raccoon were responsible. After another raid on his ducks my friend spent the evening in his backyard covered with a sheet. Later that night a Great Horned Owl failed in its attempt at a fourth duck dinner.

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