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Great Horned Owl

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

I completed the first portion of a butterfly survey.  I have been feeling more energetic two months after a hospital cancer treatment and contemplated not taking a break before finishing the survey. Wisely I decided I would get too fatigued physically and mentally if I did not rest. I planned a 20-minute break.

Great horned owl, by Peter K Burian, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Into the house I came to sit viewing birds at the feeder. I saw a large bird fly into the silver maple by our driveway. Immediately I thought it might be a Cooper’s Hawk. That species feeds on birds and is day active. Looking through an opening among sugar maple branches, I could see where the bird landed. With binoculars I realized it was a Great Horned Owl. I occasionally see owls during the day but that is not expected. 

Two feather tuffs stood up from the head confirming my identification. They are not horns but give the bird its name. It also had glowing bright yellow eyes that shined as if lighted from inside the skull. The similar sized Barred Owl has brown eyes. A clear blue sky devoid of clouds allowed the sun to cast brightness on the owl making the eyes shine. Black lines outlined the face adding to its beauty. Across the breast and belly from side-to-side alternating brown and white markings broke up the pattern to help camouflage the bird from view. 

Though the bird stood in plain sight on a short dead branch, it seemed to disappear when I looked away and looked toward it again. I watched the bird as it watched for a midday meal. I hoped a rabbit or squirrel would venture into the yard to eat under the bird feeder. Normally four to ten squirrels are rummaging seeds that have fallen to the ground. More squirrels are present than I prefer. Often two rabbits are in view. 

Having an owl take one would be tragic for the squirrel but offer life for the owl. Years ago, I saw an adult Great Horned Owl with three fledglings hunting midday in the forest. It has been rare to see them active during the peak daylight hours. Usually, they come out at dusk before Red-tailed Hawks have retired for the night and feeding territory conflicts occur. The hunting territory can be the same for both but is normally partitioned to daylight for hawks and night for owls. Hunger might be why the owl was active midday. 

Most often when I encounter an owl in midday, it is because crows have located it and are harassing it. Loud calls draw my attention. When I approach, the owl leaves its perch to fly to a new protected site with crows pursuing and pecking at the back of its head in flight. On such days, the owl does not get a good day’s sleep. 

Today’s owl had not been found by crows and quietly waited for a meal to appear. Birds came and left the feeder without noticing the owl or they ignored it. Owl broad wings do not provide good maneuvering to pursue prey through thick forest canopy like the different shaped wings of Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned hawks. Owls do well in dim light to grab ground mammals with sharp talons. This winter I watched a Barred Owl catch a rabbit that had been hiding under the fir tree. When the owl tried to catch it, at first it failed among the thick tree branches. When the rabbit darted from under the tree, it became a meal. I watched the owl feed for 40 minutes. 

My 20-minute break extended to 40-minutes with the owl commanding I stay seated and watch. This is the longest I have had the opportunity to watch a Great Horned Owl in the wild. It was wonderful and I was able to concentrate on its feather patterns, posture, and head movements. Maybe the squirrels knew it was present because none traversed the yard. 

After 40 minutes, I needed to continue my butterfly survey. I exited the back door of the house to survey the Big Field nature niches and came to the front yard a half hour later. The owl was still present but departed with my arrival. Normally I just hear owls call so the viewing was a tremendous treat. It was a most rewarding rest break.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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