Sunday, December 16, 2012

Invasion of the Great Horned Owls

Throughout my entire life, I had not seen more than a handful of owls in the wild, but in the last month (actually exactly a month ago today, on November 16th) I have seen owls on three different occasions, all three of which were great horned owls (Bubo virginianus), not to mention the two times that I saw the great horned owl parent and chicks at my grandparents house in the few months preceding that!  The largest owl of Central and South America and the second largest in North America (following the snowy owl), the great horned owl is actually closely related to the snowy owl, despite their very different outer appearances.  Despite its name, the "horns" on the head of the great horned owl are really just tufts of feathers.  The great horned owl is labeled as "Least Concern" by the IUCN. Also, this post is a birthday post for Joseph M. Roessler, happy birthday big guy!

One of the most notable features of the owls in general are their incredibly flexible necks.  Most birds of prey likes hawks, falcons, eagles, and vultures, have their eyes on opposite sides of their head.  Owls, however, like we humans, have binocular, or stereoscopic, vision.  This means that owls have to turn their heads a lot more than other birds of prey might in order to look all around.  In response to this, the owls have evolved the ability to turn their heads around 270 degrees, in either direction!
One of the great horned owls that my grandparents had in their backyard for a few months
Another interesting ability of the great horned owl, and owls in general, is their interesting method of digestion.  Birds nowadays don't have teeth, so they are unable to chew their food.  So most of the time, they (owls amongst them) swallow their food whole if they are unable to tear small chunks off of it.  This also means that the owl swallows the indigestible bits of its prey, such as the bones and the fur.  So after their meals, owls will regurgitate balls of the indigestible materials, colloquially referred to as "owl pellets!"

The great horned owl, more so than other owls, has an amazing crushing grip in its talons, around 300 pounds per square inch, which is more than the human hand is capable of!  There are also reports of cases in which the power exerted by the talons of the great horned owl matching those of much larger species of bird of prey, like the golden eagle.  The great horned owl is also capable of lifting prey that is several times heavier than they are.

What's on the menu for the great horned owl?  Where to begin!  Let's break it down by group, and give a few examples of each.  I am by no means including all of its prey items as that would take an immense amount of time. 

Where did I see the owls?  The first one was exactly a month ago when my friend Masaki Kleinkopf and I were heading back from seeing the new James Bond movie, Skyfall, which was really really good (but not as good, in my opinion, as The Hobbit, which we saw last night and which was fantastic).  We decided to take the back way, the bird of prey route between Boulder and Superior where one can frequently see red-tailed hawks, kestrels, turkey vultures, and golden eagles.  Instead, we saw a great horned owl!
A picture of one of the red-tailed hawks that I took yesterday on the Bird of Prey Route.  Not only is it an amazing bird in its own right, but it is also potential prey for the great horned owl.
The next two sightings were actually yesterday and the day before.  The first one was when my other friend Mona Kamath and I were driving along West 120th Ave., and we saw a great horned owl perched in a tree!  Yesterday, on my way home from the Morrison Museum, I took a brief detour to see if the owl was still there, and he was!  Not in the same tree, but in another tree that was quite close by!  How exciting!  Enjoy the pictures! 
And remember, if you have a birthday coming up, just email me the date at with the date and your favorite animal, and I will do my best to get a post in!  And remember, if you like what you're reading, make sure you LIKE US ON FACEBOOK, follow us (if you have a google or gmail account), or hit the subscribe button off to the right if you don't!

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