Sometimes called a “tiger on wings” or “tiger owl,” our most recognized owl of Minnesota’s Northwoods is certainly known by numerous names. Hoot owl (because of its call), cat owl (because of its large round face and ear tufts), chicken owl (occasional prey item), eagle owl (its large size), and big-eared owl (for obvious reasons) are some of the many other names that the great horned owl is called.
Great horned owls are indeed large and fearless owls. Capable of capturing and killing animals as large as rabbits and hares, skunks, cats, and even foxes, they also prey on insects, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. These big and beautiful owls are known as generalists when it comes to what’s on the menu. And it’s probably for this reason – not being choosy when hungry – that great horned owls are so widely distributed throughout all of North America.
While great horned owls have the reputation of being unafraid and aggressive (they are known to displace other species of owls and even diurnal raptors like hawks and falcons from their breeding territory, not to mention even killing and feeding on other owls and hawks), what isn’t necessarily true are the reported deaths to human beings caused by these birds. Folklore, urban legends, and many myths persist about how great horned owls have swooped silently from the dark shadows of the forest to prey on unsuspecting people.
Reports are rampant about trappers and those others who choose to wear their fur hats of beaver, muskrat, coyote, fox, or raccoon, and getting hurt or killed as a result of walking too closely to a guarded nest-site or being mistaken for something smaller. Perhaps attempts by people intent on stealing an egg or owlet from a nest has resulted in a brush with talons, I don’t know, but I cannot locate any substantiated stories of a person becoming mortally wounded by a great horned owl. Still, I can see how such stories endure.
Many years ago while walking across a hayfield in the pre-dawn darkness one frosty October morning, I was startled by something that flew silently over my head. My destination was the woodland located at the opposite side of the field and my goal was to climb up into a portable tree-stand to hunt deer with my bow. At first I didn’t know what had just occurred and nothing in the night-like sky told me differently. Satisfied that all was well, I continued to plod onward.
Seconds later it happened again, but this time I identified the ghost: a large and overly curious great horned owl began swooping over my head! The bird swooped within eight feet of me, each time suspending itself momentarily above my head, hovering, while I stood incredulously below it and wondering what the bird was up to.
I stood my ground, even waving my arms and bow while shouting “Hey!” as the owl continued his silent and seemingly methodical “stalk” of my every move. Believe it or not, I actually thought this owl was trying to harm me. Finally, to my relief, the bird departed and left me sweating all alone in the dark field again. And with one eye to the sky, I hustled to the relative safety of the trees never to see my feathered foe again.
Interestingly, and though we often refer to owls, particularly the familiar great horned owl, as wise, the birds are frequently associated with death among some American Indian tribes. I recently read that tribes native to the Sierras of western United States believed that great horned owls carried the souls of the dead to the “underworld”. Pima Indians from the Sonoran Desert near the Gila River of southern Arizona thought that when someone died, their soul entered into the body of a great horned owl. Because of this belief, owl feathers were placed into the hands of those dying brethren.
Creek Indian medicine men from what is now Georgia maintained the great horned owl as a symbol of heavenly wisdom. The medicine men either wore a stuffed owl upon their ornate headdresses or attached it to one of their arms. The owl was thought to be magical and in contact with the spirit world.
Thus, only those spiritually versed, such as medicine men, could ask Owl for advice. However, if an owl should so happen to fly overhead causing its shadow to cross any unlucky individual, the person was said to be cursed. And in a passage that I located on the Internet that specifically mentions the great horned owl itself, California Miwok Indians believed that after death, the brave and virtuous became Great Horned Owls, [but], the wicked were doomed to become Barn Owls.”
At over three pounds in weight (the heaviest of all North American species of owls), wingspans of nearly 48 inches, strong feet, and armed with sharp talons, great horned owls are formidable birds of prey. Throughout northern Minnesota the long-lived owls, which are thought to reach ages of up to 20 years in the wild, are now beginning to re-establish pair-bonds for the soon-to-arrive nesting season.
Mated pairs will lay and incubate eggs inside old abandoned crow, raven, or red-tailed hawk or northern goshawk nests, and share in the demanding responsibilities of being parents to new and hungry mouths.
Indeed, the familiar and soft-sounding yet resonant “Hoo hoodoo hoooo hoo”, vocalization of the great horned owl – a call that evokes emotions within us not unlike that experienced from hearing the lonesome howl of a wolf or mournful wail of a loon – is out there (tonight!) for all of us to listen to as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.