Birds – Great Horned Owl

(Bubo virginianus)

Called also: HOOT OWL; CAT OWL

Length—Male 19 to 23 inches; female 21 to 26 inches.

Male and Female—Long ear tufts; upper parts variegated brown, tawny, pale buff, and white; facial disk buff; eyes yellow; throat white; under parts buff or whitish, finely barred with black; legs and feet feathered.

Range—Eastern North America, west to the Mississippi, and from Labrador to Costa Rica.

Season—Permanent resident.

The lord high executioner of the owl tribe, remaining a permanent resident, except at the extreme northern limit of his range, does more damage than all other species put together. Although actually shorter than the great gray and snowy owls, his ponderous body gives him more impressive size and power, earned through constant exercise of savage instincts. No one ever finds this hunter in poor condition; diligent and overpowering in the chase, he feasts where others starve, bringing down upon the innocent heads of several members of his tribe the punishment of sins of his commission by undiscriminating farmers. Only the sharp-shinned, the Cooper’s hawk, and the goshawk among the birds of prey can show a bloodier record.

By day this “tiger among birds” keeps concealed in the woods, particularly among evergreens near water, in cloudy weather sometimes sallying forth for food, but generally not until dusk; then, with uncanny silence and hawklike swiftness of flight, he begins his nefarious work. Chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and pigeons on the farm will be decapitated if too large to eat entire, for the brains of victims are the tid-bits this executioner delights in. Dr. Hart Merriam tells of one of these owls that took the heads off three turkeys and several chickens in a single night, leaving their bodies uninjured and fit for the table. Coops and dove cots are boldly entered; entire coveys of Bob Whites destroyed; grouse, woodcock, water-fowl, and snipe know no more relentless enemy; song birds do not escape the stealthy murderer that picks them from the perch as they sleep; and all the rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, and other mammals eaten cannot offset the valuable birds destroyed.

A piercing scream as of a woman being strangled, the most blood-curdling sound heard in the woods, a rare but all too frequent sound, is a fitting vocal expression of a character so unholy.

“Silence, ye wolves ! while Ralph to Cynthia howls And makes night hideous ;—answer him, ye owls.”

A deep-toned to-whoo-hoo-hoo, to-whoo-whoo, as of a hound baying in the distance, louder than the barred owl’s hoot, and the syllables all on one note, is the sound so familiar as to scarcely need description. Like all owls, this one seems particularly attracted by the camp-fire, and every sportsman knows how dismally it punctuates the silence of the woods.

Unsocial, solitary, except at the nesting season, unapproachable by men, unlike several of his kin that may be taken in the hand when sleeping, the great horned owl gives one little opportunity for close acquaintance in his wild state, and because he is an irreclaimable savage in captivity few keep him caged. With eyes closed so as to leave only a crack to peek through, one might think he did not see the intruder; but go to right or left, and the head turns around so far to note every step that it must seemingly drop off. All owls have eyes immovably fixed in the sockets, which is the reason they must almost wring their necks when they attempt to look around. The large, yellow iris of this owl is capable of extraordinary contraction; but before you can fairly see its interesting operations, the great bird spreads his wings and moves through the trees with the silence of a shadow of a passing cloud.

In February, when the nesting season begins—for it is sup-posed this owl breaks the family rule and does not remain mated for life—he singles out some sweetheart, always larger and more formidable than himself, and undertakes the difficult task of wooing her. At first remaining an indifferent spectator of his ludicrous leaps and bounds on the earth and from tree to tree, his eccentric evolutions in the air, and the rapid snappings of his bill, she finally relents and goes house hunting with her attentive escort. Hollow trees with entrance large enough for their bodies are scarce; and when not to be found, an old crow’s, hawk’s, or squirrel’s nest is utilized. Two or three dull white eggs are laid so early in the year that ice not infrequently makes them sterile, in which case they simply contribute to the accumulation of rubbish at the bottom of the nest, on which a new set is laid. Oftentimes the nesting is over with in time to allow the rightful owner of the cradle, or one of the larger hawks, to use it. A careful observer tells of finding in a nest containing two young owls “a mouse, a young muskrat, two eels, four bullheads, a woodcock, four ruffed grouse, one rabbit, and eleven rats. The food taken out of the nest weighed eighteen pounds. A curious fact connected with these captives was that the heads were eaten off, the bodies. being untouched.”