Learning the Birds
The Mystery of the Great Horned Owls
Ruth Rogers Erickson, October 3, 2002, The Canadian Record, © 2003
For two summers now, the great horned owls have been doing something odd by the chicken house. I'll see one or two most evenings, lurking about, examining the acreage between here and the barn. Now and then, they pounce.
What's odd is they're not hunting from some lofty perch, as owls are wont to do, diving after hapless prey with their deadly talons. These owls are hunting on the ground - walking, running, even stumbling around in the dusk after something, and when they find it, they hop.
There's something slightly off about the proportions of an owl that you might never notice except when you watch them walk. Their legs are either too short or too long, I can't decide. But they seem to teeter like those inflated dolls that you can't knock down.
They lurch about, bent over, studying the ground - and then they hop. One ungainly fellow was so intent upon his purpose, he bumped headlong into a tree and tumbled over. For something as majestic as a great horned owl - well, they must really fancy what they're after, to sacrifice their dignity like that.
What would cause them to behave in such an inglorious manner? I don't know but it could be kangaroo rats. They're listed as food for the great horned owl, and I see kangaroo rats aplenty out here at night, hopping on their long hind legs down the road in the headlight beams. It seems appropriate, then, that the owls would be hopping after them.
Whatever it is, it puts the owls into a kind of trance, a type of concentration so intense they could ignore the presence of a crowd of people close by on the patio. Owls have a sense of hearing so acute, it's said they can hear the sound of a person's finger rubbing against another 50 yards away. We weren't half that distance - they must have heard us, they just didn't care.
Now lest you think I'm making mockery of a raptor of the highest order, let me tell you what I've learned of late, about the awesome owls.
Their eyes face straight ahead like ours do, but their eyeballs do not move. To improve their view and to better judge distance, they bob their heads up and down and side to side. This explains some of that wobbling around out there.
There's no truth to the rumor they can turn their heads all the way around. But they can turn far enough to look behind themselves, a flexibility that helps compensate for the fixed eyeballs.
Their ears are even stranger. Not those tufts of feathers that look like their ears - real owl ears are lower down. The strange thing is they don't match! Owl ears in most species are unequal in shape, size, and location. They might have a small ear near the top of their head on the left side, and a big ear lower down on the right. Their poor skulls look as though something went horribly wrong on the assembly line, but in fact it's all part of a wonderful plan: These asymmetrical ears allow an owl to locate sound on the vertical axis, a thing impossible for us. In other words, when those of us with matching ears hear a sound, we can identify the right and left of where it's coming from, but not the up and down. Only owls can do that.
Owl feet are notable, too. Their outer toe can rotate into several configurations: three toes forward and one back, two forward and two back- why those toes might be able to spell the alphabet, for all we know. Just know that you wouldn't want to see them coming toward you from above, especially if you're a kangaroo rat.
Now like I said, I can't be sure about the kangaroo rat as favorite food theory. But you've got to love whatever it is that takes up all that owl attention. With their mighty arsenal of adaptation aimed at tasty tidbits on the ground, these great horned owls perform an illuminating spectacle: the sight of a raptor in a rapturous pursuit.