July 04, 2006

10-Bird Meme: No. 2, Great Horned Owl

Bubo virginianus
A misapprehension, a literary reference, an attack, an act of contrition.

1. One fall evening in 1990, M. and I were car-camping at some state-owned reservoir near Reno, Nevada. We put up our tent and went to bed. A loud commotion woke me from a deep sleep. It sounded like a pack of hyenas. But we were in Nevada, so they had to be Great Basin hyenas.

The sound was coming from a grove of cottonwood trees, I further realized, so they had to be Great Basin arboreal hyenas.

Finally, I awoke completely and realized I was listening to a single great horned owl.

2. Ornithologist Willian Dawson heard something similar when he was young:

At three o'clock one morning a horrible nightmare gave way to a more horrible waking. Murder most foul was being committed on the roof just outside the open window, and the shrieks of the victims (at least seven of them!) were drowned by the imprecations of the attacking party--fire-eating pirates to the number of a dozen.

For two weeks Dawson thought he had been an ear-witness to homicide, until he heard a second round of murder, looked out, and saw the owl on a church steeple, "gibbering and shrieking like one possessed" (William Leon Dawson, The Birds of California, 1923).

3. In the early 1990s, when we worked for the Bureau of Land Management doing Mexican spotted owl censuses, we had to fill out a report on every kind of owl we encountered. One great horned owl often showed up around 11 p.m. at a stock-watering trough near the Shelf Road rock-climbing area, north of Cañon City.

I had a camera rigged with two flash units, with which I tried to photograph owls, usually not too well. When I saw this owl on its usual fence post, I drove close in our VW Bug, keeping the headlights on the bird, grabbed my camera rig, and opened the door.

But the owl flew down toward the car. One the ground, it lifted its wings, clacked its beak in anger, and charged!

A couple of yards short of the front bumper, it came to its senses, stopped, and flew off into the night. I never got the picture.

4.When I was 13 or so, I was hunting rabbits with my father in a patch of trees on a farm near Fort Collins, Colorado, when he saw a horned owl sitting on a branch. He had been raised to kill "varmints," and owls were not yet federally protected raptors.

He told me to shoot it for the sake of the farmer's chickens. Not one to question the old man, I raised my 20-gauge and fired. It plunged down and for a sickening second I thought it was making a final swoop at me. But it hit the ground dead a short distance away.

Dad cut off one of the feet and showed me how the tendons made the talons open and close. That was interesting, yet I looked at the dead owl and thought, "I should never do this again." Not to an owl.

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