Saturday, January 14, 2006

About the Great Horned Owl


One of my favorite accounts of the Great Horned Owl appears in a book [unfortunately now out of print] called Owls--Their Life and Behavior. It was written by Julio de la Torre, an ornithologist and naturalist whom I came to know when he was president of the New York City Linnaean Society more than a decade ago.

He paints a vivid picture of this nocturnal bird of prey now in the 27th day of its Central Park stay:

",,,great horned owls are probably the most successful predators in North America. They will not hesitate to take on a bobcat, fight a fox, or even tussle with a coyote. Even if the owl loses, the large mammal will know it has been in a real fight.

"What we have here, undeniably, is a case of survival of the fittest-- and great horned owls are fit indeed. In the last half century they have shown a startling ability to adapt to drastic change wrought by our invasion of their primeval haunts. Landfills and dumps on the outskirts of cities are ideal for the proliferation of rats and scavengers like gulls and crows; the great horned owl feasts on all three. Artificial impoundments -- be they reservoirs, industrial park or shopping mall ponds, or lakes in suburban parks and estates -- are magnets for waterfowl, wading birds and gulls (not to mention muskrats), all of which are gourmet fare for this bird. Suburban development, indeed, creates a supermarket full of opossums, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks, shrews, mice, and rats --- all of which the horned owl will readily toss into his shopping cart."

De la Torre notes that " With the exception of the golden eagle all birds of prey are in awe of the great horned owl's ferocity, formidable talons, and murderous beak."

Pretty exciting to have a bird de la Torre calls "the tiger of the air" now a regular resident of Central Park.

PS. Yesterday, Friday the 13th, the owl put on a particularly dramatic show for its growing coterie of admirers. At about 5:10 p.m. a photographer stationed just under the branch where the large bird was preparing for his nightly take-off, dropped a piece of equipment on a rocky outcrop at his feet. The owl was startled by the loud sound and whooshed off without any of his usual preliminary head bobbings and wing stretchings.

Four seasoned owl-followers noted the direction of his flight and had no trouble finding the owl. It was perched at the top of a very tall tree near the eastern shore of the Lake. It sat there for about 15 minutes, then headed north, towards the upper part of the Lake. But before the owlers had reached the bridge that crosses the outlet of the Gill into the Lake, the owl appeared again, flying right back to the place it had started -- not to the exact tree, but one quite near to it, at the very edge of the Lake.

By now the moon, almost full, had come up in the east, and the owl was bathed in light. Hard to reconcile the poetic image of the owl in moonlight with the vicious killer described in just about every account of the species.