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THE GREAT HORNED OWL
(Bubo virginianus)

A FEW pieces of down and some feathers first drew my attention, and when a short search presently revealed more feathers caught in the ragged edges of a broken-off old oak tree, my expectations quickly mounted. I forthwith aimed a few handy sticks at the broken tree top, and at the second throw with startling suddenness, the huge form and spreading wings of a great horned owl emerged. Poising a moment, threateningly, it then swerved up and away, disappearing in the woods.



THE GREAT HORNED OWL LEAVING IT'S NEST IN THE HOLLOW TOP OF AN OAK

Thrilling with the discovery of the old owl's nest, I accomplished the twenty-five foot climb in feverish haste, a final swing landing me in a crotch looking down into the hollow top of the tree. From the twenty-inch cavity below, two young owls, fluffy white balls about twelve days old, gazed back in startled amazement. They had plainly been well fed, for in a circle around them were strewn the remains of five birds, a ground squirrel and part of a rabbit, the birds including a robin, two yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and two flickers. Surely, here was food sufficient at one time, even for hungry young owls. On my numerous visits to the nest during the three following weeks, there was always a surprise in the variety of new prey these ravenous birds had brought home. Song birds, rails, herons, rodents, etc., in variety were found, usually with the heads eaten off. One long-eared owl was also found, a testimony of cannibalistic habits.

Covered with white down, and their eyes closed, with head, beak and talons much out of proportion to the body, newly hatched owls are grotesque objects. They are fed at short intervals, small bits, from the carcasses at hand, including the feathers, entrails and all. On this diet the young birds grow rapidly, attaining at an age of four weeks almost adult size, although not yet fully feathered. They are soon encouraged to help themselves from the food available, and their legs, at first very weak, gain strength enough to support them.


THE YOUNG OWLS ABOUT TEN DAYS OLD, SHOWING THE NEST STREWN WITH A VARIETY OF GAME


YOUNG HORNED OWLS ABOUT TWO WEEKS OLD, STILL IN THE DOWNY STAGE

While one of the parents is attending to household duties, the other is foraging for more game. In the dead of night, noiselessly, like a ghost it sweeps along through the trees, mercilessly picking its sleeping victims from their sheltered roosts.

That these owls are savage birds may be learned by experience. With a wing spread of between four and five feet, large and powerful, dauntless in courage, they prove dangerous antagonists for the intruder who meddles in their home affairs.

During some time that I spent up in the tree photographing the young, the old owls hooted their chagrin and anger from near by. Growing quickly bolder, they presently flew into trees closer at hand to observe what was going on at their nest, sometimes perching low down, sometimes in the very tiptop of the neighboring pines. Their long doleful hooting, interspersed with subdued cries or an occasional grunt, was accompanied by the ruffling of their feathers and the snapping of beaks, for this is their way of showing anger. When hooting they looked straight ahead, apparently giving their entire attention to the operation, and their white chin patches seemed to expand, presenting a very peculiar appearance.

I was placing my subjects for a last picture, when suddenly prompted to look up, I beheld one of the old birds only a few yards off sailing directly toward me. But instead of attacking me as it probably first intended, it alighted on a limb within a distance of six feet. There it perched, almost within arm's reach, long ears erect, the powerful talons of its stout, feathered legs gripping and contracting with readiness for action, the large, relentless eyes fixing me with deadly intentness. The camera was unfortunately tied in place for photographing the nest, and as it was thus out of commission for the occasion I had to sit astride a limb, content to observe and wait. A hostile move toward the young would have invited vengeance, but no further provocation being offered, the bird presently glided away.


AT THE AGE OF THREE WEEKS THE YOUNG OWLS ARE MORE LIVELY AND RESENT INTRUSION BY
HISSING AND PUFFING OUT THEIR FEATHERS


AFTER THEY ARE FOUR WEEKS OLD THE YOUNG OWLS FEATHER OUT RAPIDLY

This close introduction apparently lessening the awe in which it had held its visitor, it now perched still nearer and was presently joined by its mate, both sitting statue-like side by side only a few yards away. Having obtained satisfactory photographs, I was now ready to descend. I was about half way down when something struck me a blow just behind the right ear, nearly breaking my grip. I was so dazed by the stunning force of the blow that it was a moment before I could realize what had hit me. Hardly had I recovered my hold, when another similar blow caught me on the left cheek, leaving a good-sized gash beneath the eye, and when I finally reached terra firma I was in a very cut-up and bleeding condition.

A visit to the nest the following day found the owls on hand anticipating trouble, and perceptibly more ready for a duel after the previous encounter. On the other hand, I also was on the alert, prepared to protect myself against emergency. Climbing to and from the nest proved most hazardous, as the owls seemed to fully realize my awkward position, and therefore took this act to be the signal for attack. During my short observation of the nest, the birds hooted and snapped loudly, and as I started down one of them launched out for me. In a long swift swoop on horizontal pinions, it came on down, the great yellow eyes holding me with a sinister intensity, ominous of impending impact. The next instant, hugging close to the tree, I swung up an arm as if to strike, simultaneously ducking. Checked by this feint the owl passed, missing its aim by a few inches, and before its mate could follow up the opportunity, I slipped to the ground. Quick action was necessary, for as one bird came from one direction, the other would follow up the attack closely from the opposite side.

The blow, in every case aimed at the head, caused a curious, numbing sensation; the bird seemed to strike in full collision, yet at the same time to pass. While the main force of the stroke came, apparently, from the beak, the claws left their deep, unmistakable furrows in the flesh. It was indeed necessary to keep an unremitting watch when in proximity to the nest, as the least laxity of vigilance was sure to result unpleasantly. The owls' eyesight, contrary to popular opinion, is sufficiently keen even in bright sunlight, and the sagacity with which the birds would time and consummate their attacks merits admiration.

One other incident of the day was of particular interest. One of the owls was perched in the tiptop of a pine watching me jealously as I handled the young. Suddenly a body shot downward out of the sky, swerving past the owl's head at such terrific velocity as to produce a sound like a small clap of thunder. It was an uneasy glance the wise old bird cast upward, as it apprehended the swoop of the cooper hawk just in time to prevent being struck. The hawk evidently had perceived the owl's unwonted preoccupation, and had been tempted to startle it, probably an unusual occurrence in the life of these birds.


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