Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ghostly Chills In The Night Air

A purple and aqua afterglow bars the western sky. As the last gleam of sunset fades, there comes a sudden radiance in the east as the full moon vaults above the wooded hills.

Abruptly, from the wooded lot comes the "whoo, hoo, hoo, hoo" of the great horned owl. Visiting our neighborhood frequently is the barred owl whose screeches and screams send chills up your spine. The great horned owl's voice, a ghostly and weird sound, is much softer than the barred's shrieks.

We stand in the deepening dusk and search for the intruder whose voice comes across the moonlit lot. A few moments later a shadow drifts across the yard and vanishes in the branches of a tall, thickly-leafed sweet gum tree on the front lawn. The flight of the horned owl is powerful, swift, graceful and quiet. This predator's habitat is heavily wooded regions where it nests and finds ample food supply in the deep dark woods. It seldom leaves such security. This is only the third time it has visited us in the 40 years we have lived in this lightly wooded neighborhood.

The great horned usually does not nest in hollows but almost always usurps the nests of red-tailed hawks, eagles, ospreys or crows. They line these stolen stick nests with downy feathers of the owl. These owls are early breeders, the female laying 2 - 4, two being more common, rounded white eggs in February or early March. Incubation is 26 - 30 days with both parents participating. The young leave the nest when they are four or five weeks old. Only one brood a year is undertaken.

These owls are hostile and will not hesitate to attack humans if the owls think their nests or young are in danger. There have been reports that the owl's ferocious attacks draw blood.

Measuring 24 inches with a 60-inch wingspan, the great horned is the largest of the common owls in the Central Savannah River Area. It is some three or four inches larger than the barred, darker in color and brown rather than gray-browned as the barred. Perched, the horned's ear tufts are conspicuous, but in flight the tufts are not usually seen. The large head and short neck will tell you you are seeing the horned owl. It has a white throat patch and large yellow eyes.

Other names for this owl are "Tiger of the air", "Big hoot owl" and "Cat owl".

Though horned owls migrate from the frozen north when food becomes scarce, they are year-round residents of the CSRA.

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