Horned Owl

(This column was first published in the January 4, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    There are many common wildlife species that we seldom see or hear. Among these widely distributed animals are owls, bats and flying squirrels.

    The reason we rarely meet these neighbors is simple: we don't go out at night anymore. We sit hypnotized before our television sets or, worse, we are afraid to venture out. Even when we do leave our homes, we barricade ourselves inside our automobiles -- windows tightly closed, doors securely locked. We are no longer afraid of wild beasts out there but the daily litany of mugging reports mislead us, I believe, to fear our own kind.

    I awoke well after midnight recently to think about this. And to act upon my thoughts. I rose, dressed and walked out into a lovely clear night, leaving behind my wife once again questioning my sanity.

    Margaret Louise Park in Baehre Swamp is near our home so I walked over there. I carried no flashlight: it wasn't needed. Except when the headlights of an occasional car temporarily blinded me, I could see very well in the moonlight.

    No sooner had I entered the park when I heard the soft baritone of a great horned owl -- whooo wha-whoo who who. It came from off to my west, from the woods below the three stars of Orion's belt.

    It has always seemed to me that referring to this song as hooting or to its source as a hoot owl is misguided for there is a true musical quality to the notes. I expect that they could be best approximated with a bassoon. Cupping my hands over my mouth, I attempted to imitate them and for about twenty minutes the owl and I conversed back and forth. But she never approached. I say she because the calls of male owls are more drawn out and usually consist of six notes rather than the five I was hearing. So Ms. Owl and I did not meet that night. I would only have seen her anyway as a big shape flying in on powerful but absolutely silent wings to perch in a nearby tree. And then, unless the moon had illuminated her big yellow eyes, she would only have merged with the other dark shadows among the branches.

    Soon my new acquaintance will find a real partner who will not only join her in duets but will also mate with her. Horned owls aren't much at home construction so she will probably use an old red-tailed hawk's nest. They're such early nesters -- eggs are often laid in late January -- that she might even be finished with her nest by the time the red-tails are ready to use it again next spring.

    If they still want to, that is. Skunks are regular menu items for horned owls and their nests usually retain a hearty measure of their odor. The owls are, in fact, ferocious predators. Bent* refers to them as "winged tigers among the most pronounced and savage of the birds of prey." Their main entree is rabbit but they also take squirrels, muskrats, fish, mice, snakes, opossums, and even porcupines. They will be delighted to dine on small dogs or domestic cats, so they represent another reason to keep your pets inside at night. Especially in urban areas they are great ratters, over a hundred recently killed rats found around a single nest.

    Delighted by my visit with my unseen friend, I walked back home and returned to bed. Mine had been a pleasant venture into the dark and I thought about it contentedly as I quickly fell back asleep. -- Gerry Rising


* Arthur Cleveland Bent, "Bubo Virginianus Virginianus (Gmelin) Great Horned Owl" in Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey, Part Two (Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 170, 1938), p. 295. I have draw n extensively from this resource (pp. 295-322) in other parts of this column as well.