Great Horned Owl
by Rita Goldner
I approach this month’s animal blog with fondness because it’s about a neighbor of mine. I sometimes see a great horned owl during early morning walks, sitting and glaring. Owls have eyes set forward-facing in their heads, so the range of vision for each eye overlaps. They need the overlapping for 3-dimension depth perception, since they are predators. To the delight of owl aficionados through history, this human-looking eye placement makes them look wise, evil, and judgmental. They appear to be calmly and methodically plotting their next attack.
The slanted lines of feathers above their eyes resemble scowling eyebrows, and the tufts on their heads look like devil horns. This appearance coupled with their habit of hunting at night, and very silently, has made them the subject of myths and legends through the ages, mostly about curses and the spirit world. Their unearned bad rap has even expanded to the point where it’s reported that a great horned owl is the only bird actually to have killed a person. This popped up in my research, but the details are fuzzy. Some say the man was wearing a coon-skin cap while climbing around near a nest. Others opine that he wasn’t killed outright, but that the owl scared him to death. Anyhooo, on to the fun scientific facts.
The feather tufts on top of these owls’ heads have nothing to do with hearing. They’re not ears and aren’t even near the ears. Actually, ornithologists don’t know what their purpose is, but their guess is that it has something to do with communication and recognition, like between mates, or enemies fighting over territories. Their real ears are below, and covered with feathers. Their hearing is excellent, and oddly enough, their right ear is smaller than the left. This is a marvelous adaptation by an animal that uses sound to locate prey at night. The evolution is so sophisticated that the slight difference in sound between the two differently sized ears, and their respective locations, make the bird’s hearing “three-dimensional” so they can find a tiny mouse scurrying through the underbrush.
Another bizarre adaptation is their necks. Mammals (including giraffes) have only 7 cervical vertebrae, while owls have 14. It seems implausible when they appear short and stubby, but this deception is achieved by holding their necks in a squished-down “S” shape. They are incapable of rotating their eyes in the socket, so to look around; they twist their multi-vertebrae necks 270 degrees. A remarkable tool in their hunting bag-of-tricks is a specially formed band of feathers along the leading edge of their wings that breaks up the air currents as they glide. Therefore, their approach is silent, a stealth unattained by any other bird of prey. Their talons are so powerful that they can easily capture large prey, like skunks, gophers and porcupines.
From unusual physiology to unusual behavior, the great horned owl is no slouch in this category either. Since these birds are solitary, you would assume they search for a new mate when mating/breeding season rolls around in late autumn. Au contraire, they are committed to monogamy, even though this means they have to search for the same mate they had last year, whom they haven’t seen in almost a year. If their mate has died or moved from the territory, they may take several years to find a new one.
It’s the males’ responsibility to find an abandoned nest or make a new one, accompanied by a lot of stomping around and hooting. His enthusiastic and continual hooting can last up to six weeks. The determination to vocalize runs in the family: baby owls start chirping while still in the egg. A tough life awaits them; more than 50 percent are hunted and eaten by hawks before they grow to full size. After 10 to 12 weeks, they’ve mastered flying and leave the nest, but some come back to mooch food from their parents for several months.
The parents will continue to protect the offspring even after they’ve left the nest. Not so evil after all!
I’m tweaking my series of animal blogs into a YouTube playlist called Amazing Animals: Sketching and Storytelling with how-to sketching videos to accompany the Fun Facts. Please suggest an odd, unusual animal for me to research, write about, and draw. Click here to visit my channel, and subscribe so you can keep up with all my new videos as I add them.
References for this post:
Rita Goldner is the author and illustrator of the children’s picture book, Orangutan: A Day in the Rainforest Canopy. Rita has also written and illustrated two eBooks, Jackson’s History Adventure and Jackson’s Aviation Adventure, in the Jackson’s Adventure series.For orangutan facts and images and to purchase the book (also available as an ebook), visit OrangutanDay.com. Or by the Kindle version here. Rita’s newest book, Making Marks on the World: A Storybook for Left- and Right-Handed Coloring, is available for purchase here. Works in progress: H2O Rides the Water Cycle, The Flying Artist, and Rose Colored. To view additional illustrations and Rita’s books in progress, visit Rita’s website. Contact Rita here. Follow Rita on Facebook. Subscribe to Rita’s newsletter, Orangutans and More! and receive a free coloring page of today’s illustration.