By Dan Kirk
You know when you’re driving with a passenger in the front seat and stop suddenly and do the “mom” thing where you instinctively slam your arm in front of their chest to “save” them from shooting out the window? Same thing happens when I see something special, say, some wildlife in an urban environment. The other night, as the sun was setting on the Napa River near the San Pablo Bay in Vallejo, I happened to do this to my friend as I saw the silhouette of a Great Horned Owl fly up from some shrubs on the ground to the top of a street lamp. I knew it was an owl by the rounded head shape, and I knew it was a Great Horned Owl because of its distinctive ear tufts that make it look cat-like. I started hoo-h-HOO-hoo-hoo-ing, mimicking its hoot as we slowly walked past it into the sunset. Whenever I see an owl, it always feels so special.
Back in the forest on the Oregon coast, where I used to live, I used to hear them nearly every morning and night, but never saw one without trying hard. I like how adorable yet spooky and mystical they are–maybe this feeling comes from the fact that I only see them during silhouette hour, or that their heads can spin over 180 degrees to look behind them, and maybe from some folklore too. In California, in Oregon and in every state across the U.S., into Canada and Mexico you may hear the hoots or spot the tufts. Usually species that live in an entire continent are very adaptable, as is the case for the Great Horned Owl, or Bubo Virginianus. Their habitats range from shrublands, deserts, different types of forests, cliff sides, cities and all the in between. They tend to inhabit the same places as the Red-tailed Hawk, which are slightly easier to spot because they are more active in the day time, not the night time.
They are a nocturnal predator, swiftly flying through the night with their 5-foot wingspan, preying on large insects, amphibians, reptiles, and birds, including, on occasion, Peregrine Falcons, other owls, geese, and herons. Mammals are favored quarry, particularly rodents and rabbits. Their prey spans an array of species (just about 250), but they prefer rabbits and hares. Their unique feather tufts actually allow them to hear small sounds from far away, such as a mouse up to 900 feet away. The largest threats to the Great Horned Owl are caused by humans, shootings, traps, road kills and electrocutions. The only natural enemies are other Great Horned Owls and, occasionally, Northern Goshawks and Peregrine Falcons. Although the owl is common throughout North America, data from Partners in Flight shows a 27 percent decline in population in recent years mostly due to habitat loss, as is the case with many other animals in our developed watersheds.
As the nights get longer and the days shorter, there’s more opportunity to listen for their hooting, so keep an ear to the ground these next few months and hopefully you’ll be able to spot one too! Read about other owls in your watershed, like the Pygmy Owl and the Brazen Burrowing Owl in other Ebb and Flow articles in our newsletter.
Banner image by Tony Varela, Macaulay Library, March 17, 2017.