ALWAYS IN SEASON: An owl stands out among the wonders of the bird world

Every bird inspires wonder, but not every bird inspires awe. The great horned owl is one that does inspire awe. It is a powerful predator capable of taking prey even larger than itself. It is marvelously adapted to a wide range of habitats, fully...

The Great Horned Owl. Illustration by Mike Jacobs

Every bird inspires wonder, but not every bird inspires awe. The great horned owl is one that does inspire awe.

It is a powerful predator capable of taking prey even larger than itself.

It is marvelously adapted to a wide range of habitats, fully able to survive the most severe cold and the most searing heat.

It moves about soundlessly, yet when it calls, its voice can't be overlooked.

It is therefore a dominant presence wherever it occurs.


Strange then, that it is often present but not so often seen.

For the owl is a bird of the night.

These owls keep to themselves in daylight hours, favoring thick vegetation where they are well concealed. Often this means groves of evergreen trees. Horned owls also will hide themselves in hardwood trees, sometimes pressing close to the tree trunk and appearing to be simply an extension of the tree, a burl, if you will. Or they perch openly on a branch, but remain motionless so that they resemble a collection of twigs and leaves.

These are effective means of camouflage, except to crows. Crows torment owls, mobbing them, driving them from their perches, chasing them away.

Outing the owls, shall we say.

This is the best way of finding an owl in daylight.

The more agitated the crowd of crows, the closer the owl.

But daylight is not a reliable time to see an owl. Certainly the majority, and probably the great majority, of great horned owls that I have seen were encountered at twilight, when the owls emerge from hiding to take up an exposed perch. Sometimes, this is a branch at the outside of the crown of a tree. Sometimes, it is a telephone pole, a fence post or a road sign.


From this perch, the owl surveys its surroundings and at just the right moment, the owl strikes.

For this is a perch-and-pounce hunter.

And a deadly one.

Once, in the cemetery at Devils Lake, during the annual Christmas bird count, I was distracted by a sudden movement. It was a great horned owl. Its victim was a red squirrel. The owl had pinned the squirrel to the ground, then carried it to a perch nearby. The owl was still for a moment or two, as if posing, and then flew away with its breakfast securely held in its powerful talons.

It was a vivid illustration of Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous line, "nature red in tooth and claw."

Perhaps, great horned owls are most easily seen at this time of year, when twilight occurs so early. Certainly that's been the case at our place west of Gilby, N.D., this winter.

But perhaps, I am seeing the owls more frequently because I am home at twilight more often than I was when I was working. If so, it's a benefit of retirement that I didn't anticipate.

Early this month, I had a query from a reader who wondered what had happened to the great horned owl he'd been seeing in his backyard in Grand Forks.


It's hard to know for sure, but three possibilities occur to me.

One is that the crows drove the owl away.

Another is that the bird was a transient. Most great horned owls are resident, staying the year around where they were reared and where they nest. Each winter brings a few northern owls this far south, though, and this may have been one of those.

Or, the owl may have been answering nature's call -- the one to reproduce the species. Of all birds, the great horned owl is the earliest nesting species in our area, often incubating eggs by the end of February, so it's not unreasonable to think that courtship may already be underway.

Great horned owls are widespread, occurring across North America. But they are not common. No apex predator can be a common species, because its population soon would outrun its supply of food.

This is the only North American representative of a tribe of birds called "eagle owls," a name that pretty effectively evokes their power, majesty and wonder.

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