Great Horned Owl
A very recent encounter caused me to reconsider this week’s subject, which had originally been simply “Ducks and Geese”. Honestly, how could I not write about this beautiful creature ? I had so many of my own questions, I figured it would be a good bird to feature this Friday. This way, we all get to learn something.
I have been frequenting the wildlife refuge for about a year and have had several sightings and a couple encounters with the Great Horned Owl. (The most notable, having been a face to face encounter on the estuary boardwalk when the wildfire smoke had diminished our visibity. I think the owl and I were equally surprised to see one another.)
I don’t know much about them so here’s a little of what I’ve learned.
(By the way … All photos are my own)
Great horned owls (also called Tiger owls) weigh on average about 3.5 lbs for the females and 10-20% less than that for males. They’re one of the the heaviest owls, second only to the slightly larger snowy owl. They have piercing yellow eyes, distinctive tufts on their ears (with no discernable purpose) and prominent white eyebrows above their rusty brown disc of a face. Their claws are dark horns with blackish tips.
When nesting, both sexes aggressively defend against intruders. Those claws are sharp ! When hunting for prey they usually kill with one strike. Their sense of smell is unimpressive but they have acutely good hearing, and though they only see in black and white, they perch in trees to detect nearby prey using hearing and almost night vision. They have a range of sounds from deep booming “hoots” to shrill shrieks.
They are carnivores and while their preference is rabbit, they hunt squirrels, mink, skunks, racoons, shrews and moles among other things. They also prey on other owls (except the snowy owl), crows, woodpeckers, red-tail hawks, bittern, great blue herons, gulls, frogs, fish, salamanders and ducks.
(They have even been known to go after small domestic dogs if given the opportunity. They can take prey 2-3 times heavier than themselves.)
They don’t build nests on their own, but rather take over nests previously built by crows, heron and hawks. Once they have established their territory they may maintain it for as many as eight consecutive years.
A group of owls is called a parliament.
They have 14 neck bones (compared to a human’s 7) and can turn their neck 270 degrees.
The nickname “Tiger Owl” originated from a naturalist’s description of them as “winged tigers” or “winged tiger of the air”. They are also often referred to as “hoot owls”.
Their eyes are not true eyeballs. The tube shape of their eyes make them completely immobile. They are like binoculars that boost depth perception. ( Earlier this week I watched a constant “twitching” as the perched owl swiveled it’s head toward detected sound. I turned off the shutter sound on my camera too, wondering if it was a distraction.)
Often thought to be associated with death, the owl actually symbolizes wisdom and endurance.
I am hopeful that I have photographed two different owls and that such a pairing suggests there will be owlets in the spring ! Time will tell, but every little bit of hope and possibility is welcome !