The Mysterious Call of Great Horned Owls
By Mark Armstrong
Broadcast 6.19 & 6.22.2024

Photo courtesy National Park Service, public domain.

 

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On a spring day a few years back after a long winter, I walked to a small grove of pines at our home. This special place provides a cozy refuge to observe wildlife and early spring flowers. As I settled under the ponderosas, I saw owl pellets mixed in a carpet of dried pine needles a few feet away. I looked up into the tree canopy and saw a male Great Horned Owl roosting on a branch above me. Time stopped in that unnerving, mysterious moment when I gazed into his huge yellow eyes and experienced what so many have felt in the presence of owls – deep admiration and wonder with maybe a touch of fear. I ran to the house and brought my wife and two sons to meet our new neighbor. We named him Reggie.

Throughout history, people have been captivated by owls. There are 260 species of owls across the planet. They can be found on every continent except Antarctica, and their human admirers have dedicated cave art and mystical stories to honor them. With their frontal vision—like ours—and their penetrating stares, our deep reverence for them may be because they remind us of ourselves.

Great Horned Owls are highly charismatic animals. You can see the awe and reverence for these fascinating creatures nearly everywhere you go. The lore through the ages portrays them as wise, mysterious, and, in some cases, able to predict the future. Their haunting calls remind us to never forget that we share the land with them.

Also known as hoot owls or tiger owls, Great Horned Owls are one of the most widespread owl species. With a population of about 6 million, Great Horned Owls are doing well in most of their territories throughout North and South America. But, as with other raptors, they’re at risk from pesticides, rodenticides, and automobiles.

They announce their territories with deep, soft hoots at dawn and dusk. The mated pair perform a duet of alternating calls. During the eight years we have lived here, we have heard their duets with the higher-pitched, larger female calling back to the lower-voiced, smaller male. It has become the predictable and comforting soundtrack of our lives here.

Great Horned Owls are one of the largest owls and one of the most voracious eaters, feeding on a wide variety of prey, including other birds, rodents, skunks, lizards, and even porcupines. Pound for pound, Great Horned Owls are one of the strongest birds, capable of lifting nearly twice their weight.

Owls are masters of silent, stealth hunting. Their wings and legs are downy, with fringed and tattered trailing feathers to break sound waves as air flows over their wings. Unlike other predatory birds, Great Horned Owls are primarily nocturnal and hunt using sound more than their sight. Their other-worldly, dish-shaped faces channel the faintest scurrying sounds to their ears. The ancestors of owls date back 50 million years ago, and they are more closely related to woodpeckers and kingfishers than raptors. Their nighttime hunting gave them an advantage, feasting on the large population of rodents that emerged and thrived after the extinction of dinosaurs.

In recent years, a mated pair of Great Horned Owls have been superstars among birders at a nearby wildlife refuge. People who heard of the owl couple and their awkward, yet adorable, owlets drove great distances to catch a glimpse of the family in the old cottonwood tree. I joined the admiring crowd and took a few pictures. Was the tiger-striped male related to our Reggie? The owls peered directly back at us, unafraid…and perhaps challenging us to go above admiration and be as connected as they are to the land we share.

 


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