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A Conversation with a Great-horned Owl

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 away.

"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 mouse remaining."

"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 patiently.

"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 lost you?"

"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 soaking in?"

"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 each morsel.

"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

At the Water Cooler


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 away.

"Don't worry," she said casually. "I'm not ready to take off yet." "Wow," I...

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East Bay Times Article


Attracting birds and bees to our yards and gardens is simple, if we provide what they like and need.

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