Comes The Raptor

The great horned owl is as fierce as it is majestic.

Illustration by Nikolai Senin

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Illustration by Nikolai Senin

The great horned owl is a fierce and stealthy predator. The largest of Virginia’s resident owls, it swoops in silently on wings that can span nearly five feet in adult birds. It seizes its prey in the crushing grasp of powerful talons that, when clenched, require a force of 28 pounds to pry open. 

Its piercing gaze, signature tufts of feathers, and imposing presence earned it the French name “Grand-duc d’Amérique.”

But at the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, the resident great horned owl, Papa G’Ho, has earned his name for a different and altogether gentler reason: In the 19 years he has lived at the center (since arriving with a wing injury that meant he could not be safely released again in the wild), he has served as surrogate parent to help raise 43 injured, orphaned, and “un-nested” owlets to independent adulthood.

From hatching to full self-reliance, great horned owls go through “a long teenage phase” when they can fly and begin to hunt but still rely on their parents as backup providers, explains Amanda Nicholson, director of outreach for the Wildlife Center, which is a veterinary hospital and rehabilitation center for native Virginia wildlife as well as a training, education, and outreach resource for wildlife health. The birds hatch in Virginia typically in later winter or early spring but don’t disperse from their parents until the fall, says Nicholson. During this time, they learn the hunting skills that will allow them to survive on their own. 

Great horned owls have very good eyesight, but because they prefer to hunt in the crepuscular hours of dawn and dusk—and will even hunt at night—they particularly rely on their extraordinarily acute hearing to zero in on prey. Their ears are slightly offset to triangulate incoming sound, and, says Nicholson, “They use their facial feathers to funnel sound towards their ears.” Silent flight is essential—imagine trying to sneak up on a mouse scrabbling through leaf litter in the dim light of predawn woodland—and the owls’ wings and feathers combine a unique array of features that allow the birds to both flap and glide virtually soundlessly. 

What great horned owls consume is remarkably varied. In addition to a not-surprising selection of small rodents, such as rabbits, mice, voles, and squirrels, these owls will eat, among other things, scorpions, porcupines, fish, insects, reptiles, other owls, crows, doves, waterfowl like ducks and mergansers, and house cats (another reason, besides coyotes, to keep yours indoors). They have been documented attacking eagle and osprey nests. And, says Nicholson, “They are one of the few predators that will readily go after skunks.” Because these owls don’t have a sense of smell, skunks’ most important defense isn’t a deterrent to a great horned owl looking for dinner, apparently. “Most of the time when we have a skunky smell here in the hospital, it’s not because we have a skunk but because we have admitted a great horned owl that has been skunked at some point,” says Nicholson.

These raptors are adaptable in terms of environment as well as diet. While they prefer a home range that includes both woods and open habitat, they can be found in a wide variety of settings, from deserts to swamps, throughout North America—including suburban neighborhoods (particularly those with larger, older trees). Unfortunately, where they are too frequently drawn to hunt, Nicholson points out, is in the open areas along roadsides. You might think that tossing an apple core from your window is no big deal, but “roads can really be food buffets,” says Nicholson. Trash thrown from vehicles attracts rodents, which in turn attract the owls, says Nicholson; being hit by cars—especially in winter, when food is scarce—is the main reason owls are brought to the Wildlife Center (although “one was hit by a train and lived to tell the tale,” Nicholson notes). 

Although they are not considered a species of conservation concern, nevertheless, as with all birds, they must contend with the threats of habitat loss and other impacts of human development. Because great horned owls are not themselves really nest-builders, they have to take advantage of whatever is available, such as other raptors’ abandoned nests or cavities in trees. They are not particularly given to maintenance either, so appropriated nests tend to fall apart within a season or two, Nicholson says. If you live in an owl-friendly neighborhood, you can help out their housekeeping by building a nest structure for them (you can find plans online at NestWatch.org, from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology). Then listen for the duet of “hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo” of a pair calling to each other in the gathering twilight. 

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