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The Great Horned Owl

The Great Horned Owl

It is winter and there are Great Horned Owls to be seen at the New York Botanical Garden, writes Jennifer Scarlott.

Dear Cub kids,

It’s that time of year again in New York City. The nights are getting longer and darker. The days are pale and dim, the sun often non-existent in a white, snow-filled sky. For me, this is the time of the owls.

Owls are birds of the order Strigiformes, and there are some 200 species of them. Most owls are solitary and nocturnal, and all are birds of prey.

Every winter, I go walking at night, in deep snow, in the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). Surprisingly, there is old-growth forest in the vast reaches of the NYBG, and in that forest, Great Horned Owls Bubo virginianus abound.

On a black winter’s night, hopefully with just enough moon to cast long, dark tree shadows on the sparkling snow, I hike in, and listen for the owls. I wait, shifting restlessly in cold boots, holding my gloved hands over my nose and mouth, trying to stay warm as my frosty breath seeps between my fingers. Then, yes, there it is! The soft, deep, “Who, who-who, whoooooo,” and a large, black-winged shape glides through the branches of the trees. Mysterious, beautiful nature.

A little science about owls? They are birds of the order Strigiformes, and there are some 200 species of them. Most owls are solitary and nocturnal, and all are birds of prey. Most people are familiar with their upright stance while not in flight, and their large, broad head and prominent eyes. Owls’ feathers are singularly well-adapted for silent flight; they also are able to fly more slowly than other birds of prey. Owls are found in all regions of the Earth except Antarctica.  They hunt small mammals, insects, and other birds, and a few even specialise in hunting fish!

Most birds of prey have eyes on either side of their head. Not so owls, whose forward-facing eyes in their disc-like faces allow for very effective hunting in low light. While your neck has just seven vertebrae, an owl’s has fourteen, allowing it to rotate its head up to 270 degrees. Also, unlike you, an owl swallows its food whole, regurgitating the indigestible parts of its prey, such as bones, scales, and fur, as neatly packed pellets.

I’m looking forward to being in the snowy forest again, in the presence of that majestic being, the Great Horned Owl. Before I go, some late afternoon when the winter sun is low and orange in the sky, I’ll read stories of owls, and poetry of owls, like this one, written, perhaps, on a warm sunny day in rural England by the great Alfred Lord Tennyson…

The Owl

When cats run home and light is come,
And dew is cold upon the ground
,
And the far-off stream is dumb
,
And the whirring sail goes round
,
And the whirring sail goes round
;
Alone and warming his five wits
,
The white owl in the belfry sits
.

When merry milkmaids click the latch,
And rarely smells the new-mown hay
,
And the cock hath sung beneath the thatch
Twice or thrice his roundelay
,
Twice or thrice his roundelay
;
Alone and warming his five wits
,
The white owl in the belfry sits
.

More English poetry “peopled by owls”? Thomas Gray’s very beautiful ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, has an owlish character:

… “Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign…

The Great Horned Owl, by the way, is also known as the ‘tiger owl’. Early naturalists called it the ‘winged tiger’ or ‘tiger of the air’. It is a very large owl, native to the Americas, a bird with a truly vast range, and the most widely-distributed owl in the western hemisphere. Observing them in the wild, naturalist Ernest T. Seton wrote in 1890: “Their magnificent bearing, their objection to carrion, and their strictly carnivorous tastes make me rank these winged tigers among the most pronounced and savage of the birds of prey.” Warrior-based Native American people of North America have admired Great Horned Owls for their beauty, courage, and strength. The Pima of the American Southwest believed that Great Horned Owls are reincarnations of slain warriors who fly about by night.

I’m happy that owls appear everywhere in human art and mythology. What makes me happiest though, is the thought of all owls flying wild and free.

Your friend,

Jen.

Author: Jennifer Scarlott, First appeared in: Sanctuary Cub, January, 2015.

 
 
 

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