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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 14, 2003 - Issue 89


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Why the Owl Has Big Eyes


by Iroquois Legend


BunnyRaweno, the Everything-Maker, was busy creating various animals. He was working on Rabbit, and Rabbit was saying: "I want nice long legs and ears like a deer, and sharp fangs and claws like a panther."

"I do them up the way they want to be; I give them what they ask for," said Raweno. He was working on Rabbit's hind legs, making them long, the way Rabbit had ordered.

Owl, still unformed, was sitting on a tree nearby waiting his turn. He was saying: "Whoo, whoo, I want a nice long neck like Swan's, and beautiful red feathers like Cardinal's, and a nice long beak like Egret's, and a nice crown of plumes like Heron's. I want you to make me into the most beautiful, the fastest, the most wonderful of all the birds."

Raweno said: "Be quiet. Turn around and look in the other direction. Even better, close your eyes. Don't you know that no one is allowed to watch me work?" Raweno was just then making Rabbit's ears very long, the way Rabbit wanted them

OwlOwl refused to do what Raweno said. "Whoo, whoo," he replied, "nobody can forbid me to watch. Nobody can order me to close my eyes. I like watching you, and watch I will."

Then Raweno became angry. He grabbed Owl, pulling him down from his branch, stuffing his head deep into his body, shaking him until his eyes grew big with fright, pulling at his ears until they were sticking up at both sides of his head.

"There," said Raweno, "that'll teach you. Now you won't be able to crane your neck to watch things you shouldn't watch. Now you have big ears to listen when someone tells you what not to do. Now you have big eyes--not so big that you can watch me, because you'll be awake only at night, and I work by day. And your feathers won't be red like Cardinal's, but gray like this" --and Raweno rubbed Owl all over with mud--"as punishment for your disobedience."

So Owl flew off, pouting: "Whoo, whoo, whoo."

Then Raweno turned back to finish Rabbit, but Rabbit had been so terrified by Raweno's anger, even though it was not directed at him, that he ran off half done. As a consequence, only Rabbit's hind legs are long, and he has to hop about instead of walking and running. Also, because he took fright then, Rabbit would have been an altogether different animal.

OwlAs for Owl, he remained as Raweno had shaped him with anger--with big eyes, a short neck, and ears sticking up on the sides of his head. On top of everything, he has to sleep during the day and come out only at night.

Print and Color Your Own Great Horned Owl Picture

Listen to the Great Horned Owl

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Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus

Great Horned OwlThe Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus, is one of Canada's commonest large birds of prey. As such, it is often displayed in local zoos and museums. There are few rural residents, hunters, or vacationing city dwellers who have not either observed this magnificient bird in the woods or listened on a still evening to its legendary hooting — a soft yet vibrant whoo-hoo-ho-o-o.

Great Horned Owl distributionThe Great Horned Owl is found in virtually all of the forested and semi-forested regions of North, Central, and South America, except on the islands of the Caribbean. A close relative, the Eagle Owl, is native to Europe, North Africa, and central Asia.

With no need to make the seasonal migrations that carry other birds from the Arctic Ocean to the Straits of Magellan and back again, Great Horned Owls are likely to be year-round residents of limited hunting ranges of about 8-10 km², throughout their vast region. Such adaptation by a species is truly remarkable and has few parallels in ornithology.

The most notable physical attributes of the Great Horned Owl are its large size and prominent ear tufts or "horns." A predator that hunts at night, the owl has enormous yellow eyes set in a broad face, a curved beak and claws, and long fluffy feathers. Its coloration tends mainly toward brown or grey-brown, with conspicuous barring. Very dark races occur in British Columbia and Labrador, whereas extreme whiteness is seen in Great Horned Owls from the Northwest Territories and northern sections of the Prairie Provinces. As is the general case with hawks and owls, the female Great Horned Owl is considerably larger than the male, averaging about 2kg to the male's 1-1.5kg, with a wingspan of about 1.2m. The only larger owl is the Snowy Owl, a winter migrant to southern Canada, whose maximum weight approaches 3kg.

Nesting and young
Great Horned Owl owletsGreat Horned Owls make little if any effort to construct nests or even to repair suitable existing ones. Rather, they customarily usurp the previous year's nest of some other raptor, such as a Red-tailed Hawk, or that of a crow or magpie. The same nest is seldom used by owls for more than one year, because trampling by the young usually reduces any nest to a disintegrating mass of sticks. Hollow trees are occasionally selected as nest sites. In mountainous or rough terrain, especially where trees are sparse, Great Horned Owls will nest on ledges and promontories.

Breeding densities commonly average one pair per 7.5 to 10km², although one to three pairs per 2.5km² have been reported. Active nests tend to be rather evenly spaced within suitable habitats, owing to the species' strongly territorial behaviour throughout the year. It seems likely that pairs mate for life, share in the defense of a territory against other Great Horned Owls, and occupy essentially the same territory for several years. Most Great Horned Owls first breed at two years of age, although there is evidence that year-old birds occasionally attempt to nest when food is especially abundant.

Bird banders often witness the aggressiveness of these owls in defending their nests. Indeed, many have had clothing torn or suffered severe lacerations during repeated attacks. So risky is it to work with these birds under such circumstances that biologists wear heavy jackets and industrial hard hats for protection.

Great Horned Owls are very early nesters, even in northern latitudes, with egg laying and incubation underway well before the snow disappears. Laying begins approximately one month before hatching. In central Alberta (latitude 54°), average hatching dates range from mid-April to early May. Nesting occurs earliest during years of peak snowshoe hare populations, suggesting that it is the adequacy of the owls' food supply that determines how early or late the birds will nest in any year.

The number of eggs per nest ranges from one to five, and the size of the average clutch (a nest of eggs or a brood of chicks) differs from place to place and from year to year. Differences in clutch sizes between years seem tied to major changes in availability of food. When large numbers of meadow voles and snowshoe hares are in the area, providing an abundance of food for the owl, the size of the clutch increases.

The young owls are almost fully feathered and capable of short flights around eight weeks of age. However, they remain largely dependent upon their parents for food during most of the summer and likely do not disperse from their natal territories until fall. The period between fledging and dispersal is a critical time for all young birds of prey, because it is then that they must develop the hunting skills that will make them self-supporting. The young normally do not move far from the area in which they were born: over 90% of nestlings that have been banded, and later recovered, moved less than 80km.

Great Horned Owl in flightDiet and feeding habits
Because they are both large and powerful, Great Horned Owls are capable of handling a wide variety of prey, ranging in size from shrews and songbirds to skunks and geese. As a general rule, however, the Great Horned Owl mainly depends upon medium-size mammals and birds, at least in Canada and the United States where its food habits are well documented. Rabbits and hares are a staple part of the diet in many regions, and grouse and ducks are also important prey. When mice or voles are abundant, as they are every three or four years, owls consume large numbers of them.

The Great Horned Owl hunts mostly between dusk and dawn, and its night vision and hearing are acute. Like other owls, the great horned can approach its prey in total silence thanks to specializations of the flight feathers. As well as being a silent hunter, this owl is swift, and its talons are effective weapons.

It swallows small prey whole, but larger prey are first dismembered. Fur, feathers, teeth, and bones that are indigestible are compacted in the owl's stomach and later regurgitated as "pellets." One or more of these may be disgorged daily, depending upon the volume and type of food eaten. Scientists obtain information on the food habits of owls by identifying the remains of prey animals in such pellets.

Limits to population
Adult Great Horned Owls are formidable predators and have few natural enemies, though some may be killed or seriously injured when attacking large-size prey. It is, for instance, common to find these owls riddled with porcupine quills or reeking of skunk scent. There are accounts of Great Horned Owls attacking snakes andcoming off second best. Crows and magpies frequently harass or "mob" roosting owls during the day-time, but this can be scarcely more than a minor annoyance.

Nestlings are sometimes taken by Red-tailed Hawks, and other predators. Young chicks often fall from nests; others are killed and eaten by larger nestlings. Deaths from severe weather and starvation also occur. About 50% of the young that leave the nest die within their first year from various causes.

Although various infectious diseases and parasites have been found in the Great Horned Owl, no one really knows how many die of them.

Adult Great Horned Owls face the possibility of death due to various human activities. Some owls fly into power lines or are struck on highways. Others are shot by irate farmers or thoughtless hunters. Fortunately, laws that protect Great Horned Owls from needless persecution have been passed in each province. Owls that die of natural causes can reach a great age.

Future status
The Great Horned Owl remains so widely distributed and remarkably tolerant of major habitat disturbance by people that its future seems secure. Its ability to exploit a great diversity of prey and its largely nocturnal activity are undoubted advantages. Together with other wild creatures, however, the Great Horned Owl faces the risk that some new pesticide, land use, or pollutant will produce environmental changes that ultimately lead to a decline in its population. If that happened, it would be unfortunate. The species is beautiful and interesting and an important part of natural ecosystems. We must never become complacent about the effect of human activity on the safety of any wildlife species, including this formidable predator.

Great Horned Owls - Bubo virginianus
The Great Horned Owl was first seen in the Virginia colonies, so its species name was created from the Latinised form of the name of this territory (originally named for Queen Elizabeth I, the "Virgin Queen"). The first published description was made in 1788 by Johann Gmelin. Great Horned Owls are sometimes known as Hoot Owls, Cat Owls or Winged Tiger.

KidWings - Inspiring the next generation
Welcome to the KidWings website!  This site was designed to teach young and old about the wonders of birds.  The most exciting part of the site is the Virtual Owl Pellet Dissection.  Many interactive activities await you.  Click on a link from the left side of the screen to get started.

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

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