The prophet Mary Oliver has written many words about owls. In one essay, she writes about the screech owl which in Greek mythology accompanied the goddess Athena, the saw-whet like “a big soft moth” and “that luminous wanderer the snowy owl.” Then she gets to talking about the Great Horned Owl: “They are the pure wild hunters of our world. They are swift and merciless upon the backs of rabbits, mice, voles, snakes, even skunks, even cats sitting in dusky yards, thinking peaceful thoughts. I have found the headless bodies of rabbits and bluejays, and known it was the great horned owl that did them in, taking the head only, for the owl has an insatiable craving for the taste of brains….I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world.” Dayyyum Mary O! I won’t say it’s a full on indictment, but it’s a pretty villainous portrait of what I’ve come to think of as a creature of unparalleled grace.
Great Horned Owls were actually one of the first that birds that ignited my past month of birding adventures. My dad had been telling me about the great horned owlets in Battle Creek Park and I eventually got around to planning a trip to go see them for myself. Palo, Kathy and Liam joined me, and we slowly made our way around the park (staying 6 feet apart) while peering into treetops for owl-shaped protrusions. Looking, looking, looking, and no owls. We tried to keep positive attitudes, like “It was so lovely to see that egret!” but I think we all had our hearts set on owls.
At last I broke down and called my dad for help. Of course, he was able to give us almost exact directions. Granted, he did say, “they’ll be somewhere in that area” but when we got to the end location he described, they were right there, and they didn’t look like babies at all. Our little Young Birders group was so excited it was hard to stay quiet. Apparently the owlets had just started flying within the past week. Watching them from below, they didn’t seem like terrifying brain-hungry predators but they also were definitely not cute fluffy stuffed animals you’d want in your bed. They were just…wild.
Things I’ve learned about Great Horned Owls:
- Apparently owls do like to eat brains (but so do many birds of prey, so take it easy, Mary O). After a bit of internet poking around, best explanation I’ve found is that brains are super nutritious and easy to access through thin skull bones. This blog contributor also wrote: “the juncture between head and body on birds is a weak one. Removing the head requires only a quick ripping motion. This leaves an opening into the upper torso, allowing easy access to other nutritious organ meats.” He then goes on to say that by eating the brains first, it’s like eating “a cheesecake, followed by an entire box of sugar donuts.” yum!
- Their territory can be as small as 1/3 of a square mile up to 2 miles. While this territory may overlap with other hawks, it’s unlikely to overlap with other species of owl because the GHO may prey on smaller owls.
- In general if you hear GHO hooting, it’s probably a male making a territory call. Female GHO only hoot during the brief winter courtship period.
- Great Horned Owls don’t build nests! Instead, they use nests that others have built, especially old hawk nests (although if those aren’t around they’ve been known to also use old crow, heron and squirrel nests). If a hawk comes back one year to find a GHO in its nest, it goes off to build a new nest. That said, owls are sometimes finished with a nest by the time a hawk is ready to get nesting: GHOs are some of the earliest nesting birds in North America.
- I would really like to say the “Bubo” Latin genus was an original interpretation of the sound they make, and while this is not confirmed it is still fun to say. Bu-bo, bo bo!