A February snow was falling steadily and beginning to pile up on the great horned owl as she sat, huddled on a rocky ledge, watching traffic on the road far below. A car stopped, and a man with binoculars peered up at her. That was a frequent occurrence. What was the occasion?
As avid birders in the area knew, this great horned owl would likely be sitting on a nest on this rocky ledge. She had chosen this exact spot for a number of years, to raise her young. That’s right. She was incubating several eggs under her snow-covered body. Why was she nesting so early?
When hatched, owlets are about three inches long. Over the next three months, they will grow to two feet tall and have a wingspan of up to six feet. During this growing season, the owlets have enormous appetites. Both parents work hard to keep the young fed. By nesting early the owl can see food much easier because there are no leaves on the trees and because of the sharp contrast provided by snow.
Speaking of food, great horned owls have an unusually wide range of prey species–from the tiniest shrews weighing only a fraction of an ounce, to the smelliest skunks and prickliest porcupines. From other owls, to crows, turkeys, hawks, ducks, geese and swans…the list goes on. From lizards to large snakes and small alligators, from toads, frogs, and fish to eels, worms, and spiders…great horned owls eat them all. Over 250 species have been found eaten by these birds. They will dive from the air, walk the ground, or wade in water to capture their prey.
Their favorite foods are rabbits and hares. On occasion, I have called in owls by using a mouth-blown call imitating an injured rabbit. Imagine hunkering down by a tree at night and having a great horned owl land on a branch above you, only to peer down at you and think you might be his next meal. Isn’t that fun!
- The leading edge of the wing feathers is frayed, breaking up the air passing over them. This enables the owl to fly silently, an added advantage when needing to catch enormous quantities of food.
- The tufts of feathers that look like ears actually have nothing to do with hearing. The ear openings are at two different positions: the right opening behind the right eye, while the left opening is lower, about the level of the beak. Sound reaches these two locations at slightly different instants, enabling them to accurately pinpoint exact locations.
- The mouth opening is much wider than the beak, about the width of the “ear” tufts. This enables it to eat whole, much of the food it catches. Even small rabbits can be eaten whole.
- Birds are often plucked before they are eaten. The legs and wing tips of birds are not eaten.
- These owls have a large variety of calls they can make, from the typical, 6-syllable hoot to a catlike “MEEEOWww”. Other sounds can be described as growling, barking, screaming, and hair-raising shrieks. Some sounds are even ventriloquial.
- People have often been afraid of owls, likely because of some of these characteristics that God planned so marvelously. Instead of us calling owls evil, God is pleased when we observe the wonderful way in which He created them, to fill their place in His creation.
“Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created.” Revelation 4:11