Back to Nature (Published on - Sept. 30, 2005)
The great horned owl, winged tiger of nature
Photo by Rick Tremmel
The great horned owl
The awe-inspiring great horned owl, Tyto alba, is the subject matter of countless poems, stories, legends and is the catalyst of primordial superstitions. The great horned owl possesses the silence of the night, the wisdom to see what others are unable to see and to stealthily triumph under the cover and shield of darkness.

The adaptable great horned owl can be found in a vast variety of habitats from sea level, Tierra del Fuego, to tree limit, 11,000 foot elevation. The great horned owl is only found in the Americas. Its preferred habitat is deciduous woods meeting the requirements of nesting and roosting sites, camouflage and plentiful prey.

This owl has large ear tufts that appear as “horns.” It is a large powerful, nocturnal bird about 18 to 25 inches tall with a wing span of 50 to 60 inches and weighs about three pounds. Like all owls, their large eyes cannot move. To look up, down or to the side the owls must move their entire heads and are able to turn their necks 180 degrees.

The great horned owl is primarily mottled dark brown with black spots above and pale brown under-parts below with a conspicuous white throat bib. The upper chest has dark, at times softened streaks. They have a large head and bright yellow eyes. The facial disks are deep, rusty brown bordered at the sides in black. The female lays one to five eggs, but most commonly two white eggs. Both sexes participate in incubation, which takes 26 to 30 days. The young begin flying at nine weeks of age. Great horned owls generally mate for life.

The call of the great horned owl is a series of deep, resonant, low, sonorous, far carrying hoots, hoo, hoo-hoo, HOO HOO. The Cherokees tell a story of why the owl makes this mournful call:

A Cherokee mother advises her beautiful daughter it is time for her to choose a husband. The young woman had many suitors, but none pleased her. One was too boastful, one was too fat, one was too loud and so on. Then one day a very handsome man came to the door and asked to speak with the mother.

He told her he had come to ask for permission to marry her daughter. The mother asked, “Are you a good hunter?” “Yes, my name is U-gu-ku and I am a very good hunter.” The mother asks her daughter, “This man says he wants to marry you. Would you like to marry him?” The daughter had never seen such a handsome man before, soft spoken and a good hunter, so she agreed.

The first night after their wedding the young man went hunting and brought back three small fish, explaining, “This is all I was able to find.” Each night after it was the same until the mother and daughter became concerned. One night the mother told the daughter she’d better go after the husband and watch him.

As the daughter watched her new husband he began to run and then became an owl soaring in the night sky. He flew over the land in search of food for the mother and his new bride. When he

returned home he brought with him three voles and placed them on the table. The mother confronted him.

“U-gu-ku, you are not a good hunter. You are an owl. You have lied to us.”

U-gu-ku protested, “I never lied. I am an owl and for an owl I am a very good hunter.” The daughter packed her things and left, “I don’t want to be married to an owl!” U-gu-ku was heartbroken for he loved the girl very much.

He turned back into being an owl and flew through the forest mournfully calling for his lost bride: Hoo, hoo-hoo, Hoo Hoo. To this day when you walk the forest, you can still hear the great horned owl sadly calling for his lost love.

The great horned owls are noted for their

aggressive hunting prowess and are referred to as, “winged tigers among the most pronounced and savage of birds of prey.” Their diet is varied; rabbits, hawks, snakes, lizards, frogs, insects, scorpions, rats, mice, and rabbits, ground squirrels, opossums and even skunks and on occasion fish. They eat some birds, up to the size of geese, hawks, and smaller owls.

For such a large bird the great horned owl is rarely seen but often heard. Whether the song of this owl is one of a lost love or the call from a winged tiger, the great horned owl of the sleepless, silent night inspires our imaginations and honors us with stories to share around a warming fire back to nature.

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