Winter 2014 - by Joanie Smith
I've heard a
Great-horned Owl off and on in our
yard for years. I happened to see her
the other day just before dusk in our
large oak tree. She was just waking up
from a long day of snoozing, getting a
little preening done in preparation for
a night of hunting. I got as close as
I could to her trying not to scare her
"Don't worry," she said casually.
"I'm not ready to take off yet." "Wow,"
I said, taken aback. "You can talk!"
"Yes," she said. "I pick up tidbits here
and there." "So," I said, as if she
were an old friend. "Where are you
off to tonight?" "Well," she said slowly
stretching her mottled brown wings.
"I might head out to your neighbors
down the street. They're ripping out
their ivy. Should be plenty of desperate
rats looking for a new home. But, that's
easy pickings," she said with a yawn.
"I'm really looking to add to my life
list." "What?" I said taken by surprise.
"You have a life list of ...rodents?"
"Oh yes," she said. "And, it's nearly
complete. I've just got one species of
"But, how do you know what
rodents you've eaten?" I asked
curiously. I wasn't sure I knew what
all the species of rodents even were.
She reached behind her and pulled
out a small book titled "Field Guide
to California Rodents". "What?" I said
incredulously. "You have a field guide
to rodents?" "Of course," she said
impatiently. "How else would I know
what I've eaten?"
She opened the well-worn book
scanning the pages with a touch of
annoyance. Then, she reached behind
her a second time and pulled out a
pair of readers. "You wear glasses?" I
said. "I've gotten far-sighted over the
years," she said. "I saw them fall out
of your pocket one day. They've been a
God-send by the way." "But," I said still
confused. "How can you possibly catch
prey if your vision isn't perfect?" "We
owls don't rely on our vision to pinpoint
the location of prey," she explained
"Our hearing is so sensitive that we
can actually locate the exact position
of a rodent without the use of vision."
"Wow, that must be why you have
those large ears," I said pointing to
the top of her head. She rolled her
exceptionally large dark brown eyes
which wasn't easy because owls can't
move their eyes, only turn their heads.
"These aren't ears," she said chuckling
to herself. "They're tufts of feathers.
Owls use their eyes to hear. The large,
round structures around owl eyes are
really there to catch sound waves. Our
beaks are flattened to keep it out of
the way. We tuck our beaks downward
to aid in the collection of sound. Have I
"Well," I said scratching my
head. "I'm still trying to understand
how you..." "So, here's how we can
"see" with our ears. Try to keep up,"
she said slightly annoyed. "Our ears are
asymmetrical. One opening is higher
and one is lower to aid in locating prey
at night. Because of the difference
in the location of the openings, we
can hear a sound at two slightly
different times. We use that very small
difference - a 30 millionth of a second,
in some cases - to figure out the "left/
right" location of our prey. Any of this
"Yes," I said hesitantly. "I have
another question, though." "Dummy
up," she said suddenly, putting her
primary feathers up to her beak. "I
think I hear something." She moved
her head in a sort of circle pattern
pinpointing the exact location of her
prey and then flew off without a sound.
Soon she was back with a dead mouse
in her talons. I looked away while she
tore the mouse into bite-sized pieces
flipping her head back as she swallowed
"What's the matter?" she said.
"Haven't you ever seen an owl eat?"
"Not close up," I said weakly. "Are you
going to add this mouse to your life
list?" "No, this is just a common deer
mouse," she said with her beak full.
"They're the bread and butter of our
diet, so to speak. So, what was
your question?" I watched as
she ate the mouse--fur, claws, teeth
and all. "Well, actually I was wondering
how you manage to digest that entire
mouse. Seems to me it would be a bit
painful eliminating those teeth and
claws, if you know what I mean," I said
wincing a bit. "Not at all. You didn't
think we could pass all that did you?"
she said finishing the last chunk. "Oh,
hold on a moment." She reached up
with her claw and tucked in a little leg
that was sticking out the side of her
beak. "We produce pellets. A pellet
is a mass of undigested body parts --
feathers, bones, tendons, claws, teeth
usually about an inch or two in length.
Anything that we can't digest comes
back up about six to ten hours after
we've eaten. If you get a chance, pick
up a pellet or two down at the base of
the tree and dissect them. You never
know what you'll find." "You know I
think I coughed up a pellet myself
once," I said, trying to remember.
"What?" she said, looking doubtful.
"Humans don't cough up pellets." "I
think I swallowed a chicken bone or
something and it came back up," I said.
She chuckled to herself. "That's not
exactly the same thing unless you're
also coughing up fur and bones, in
which case I'd have to question your
sanity. "Well, time to go. Adios!" she
said over her shoulder as she took off.
The next day I wondered about
the owl with her life list and whether
she was successful at catching the last
species of mouse that was missing
from her list. I meant to ask her what
exactly that species was, but I didn't
want to hold her up by asking any
more questions. I wandered over to
her roosting tree and selected the
freshest pellet. I slowly pulled it apart
piece by piece looking through it with
my magnifying glass. I began to feel
horrified as I picked out shreds of red
cloth and a tiny pair of shoes. And
then, my worst fears were realized
when I found two tiny white buttons.
It was Mickey.
Bless the owls ~ Joanie and Annie