There’s nothing to send shivers traveling along your spine like listening to the haunting hoots of a great horned owl hidden from human eyes by the cloak of darkness. It’s no wonder that owls have also become popular motifs for the celebration of the Halloween holiday. Just remember there’s more to these creatures of the night than perhaps meets the eye. Owls may be our neighbors, but we’ll never truly belong to their world, which must be why they continue to intrigue us.
While human culture has turned owls into beloved creatures, keep in mind these birds are fierce and ferocious predators. For young American crows in their nests, this owl is the stuff of their avian nightmares. It’s no wonder that crows, which no doubt witness their peers taken by the great horned owl as prey when young and helpless, grow up with an abiding hatred of this large nocturnal raptor. Flocks of adult crows form quickly when an owl is discovered at a roost during the daylight hours. With safety in numbers, the crows mercilessly hound and harry such unlucky owls.
Quite often, it does take a crow’s sharp eye to detect a motionless owl at its daytime roost. Great horned owls have a plumage of mottled grays and browns, as well as some white feathers on the chin and throat. This plumage helps them blend into their surroundings. Even when on the move, the great horned owl rarely attracts attention. They can fly in almost perfect silence on their wide wings. I know this from firsthand experience. Back in the early 2000s I visited Orchard Bog in Shady Valley in Johnson County in early spring for a chance to witness the evening display of American woodcocks from the nearby woodlands. While standing with some other birders, I noticed a large shadow moving low over the fields heading toward us. As the bird got closer, it became recognizable as a great horned owl. The owl barely diverted from its flight. In fact, it flew just over our heads, gliding silently on wide wings. I still marvel at how the owl’s wings made no noise whatsoever. The owl continued to glide over the fields until we lost it in the dusk.
On another occasion I also witnessed how, when they want to do so, great horned owls can be absolutely silent. While vacationing on Fripp Island, South Carolina, in the 1990s, I would accompany my family members on dusk gold cart excursions. We liked to pull off the side of the road on a causeway that crossed a series of tidal creeks and marsh. On that occasion, a great horned owl flew from nearby woodlands to land on a gnarled snag that rose above the marshland vegetation. Although the owl arrived on silent wings, it soon interrupted the silence with resonant hoots that carried over the marshes. The owl returned to the same snag for two additional evenings during our vacation stay.
I’ve seen other great horned owl over the years in locations from South Carolina and Florida to Utah and Tennessee. I’ve heard many more of these large owls than I have ever been able to get into focus in my binoculars.
Here are a few other interesting facts about the great horned owl:
• This owl is one of the few predators that preys regularly on skunks. Lacking a well-defined sense of smell, owls aren’t bothered in the least by the skunk’s powerful arsenal of stink.
• A wild great horned owl’s longevity peaks at around 13 years of age. Captive owls have been reported reach ages of more than 30 years old.
• Various Native American tribes have held owls in high respect. Dwight G. Smith, author of Great Horned Owl, a book in the Wild Bird Guides series, noted that members of the Zuni tribe of the southwestern United States often hold owl feathers in their mouths to impart the owl’s ability to hunt silently onto their own hunting abilities.
• Great horned owls will eat other birds. They will eat other predatory birds, as well, including ospreys, peregrine falcon and various hawks. The smaller barred owl knows to stay out of their way, too.
• The David Lynch drama “Twin Peaks,” which ran originally on ABC from April of 1990 to June of 1991, spent considerable time dwelling on the mystery that “the owls are not what they seem.” Footage of great horned owls provided a sinister, mysterious mood that fascinated viewers. The series was resurrected in 2017 on Showtime. Alas, although owls returned in the revival of the series, fans still really don’t know the truth about the owls and their importance to the fictional town of Twin Peaks.
• The Celtic people believed that owls knew the paths that led into the underworld. Perhaps that is how owls became regarded as messengers capable of crossing realms. Many Native American tribes have stories about owls delivering messages from the supernatural spirit world to our own reality.
I align with the cultures that regard an owl as an omen of good fortune. Any time you get a chance to observe an owl, it’s a good thing. It’s not often we get to glimpse these fascinating birds as they emerge from the shadows. Celebrate any opportunity.
As always, email me at email@example.com to share observations, make comments, or ask questions.