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Into the Outdoors - Great horned owl

Last week, I closed the column with a reference to the mating season of owls.  I thought we would start off with the biggest of our owls.  That would be the great horned owl.  When someone makes reference to “hoot owls,” this is the one which usually comes to mind.  I suppose this relates to the “whoo, whoo” call they make.  You can hear this a lot now, as their nesting and mating season is in full swing.  They are among the earliest of mating birds, sometimes seen with snow on their backs as they incubate their eggs.  These guys are really big, often reaching a length of two feet.  The females are larger than the males.  They lay two or three eggs, which are nearly round. These are really powerful birds.  They are very muscular, with a powerful beak and wicked talons.  They are able to prey on surprisingly large animals.  They even take skunks, as they are not sensitive to the smell.  Also, their powerful beak enables them to dispatch prey rapidly.  Rabbits probably rank at the top of their menu.  They also like chickens, geese, turkeys and other farm critters.  They are really into eating cats.  A friend of mine actually witnessed a great horned owl taking an adult cat.  Those baby owls (owlets) get pretty hungry.  While losing a pet cat or small dog to an owl is painful, it doesn’t mean that the birds are bad.  They are simply following their nature and caring for their young.  At one time, the state paid a bounty for every great horned killed.  Fortunately, that is no longer the case.  The birds are, in fact, protected. I’m going to relate to you a story that took place many years ago.  I was hunting squirrels in one of my favorite patches of woods.  It was getting near quitting time.  The woods were alive with the sounds of birds, chipmunks and other woods dwellers.  Suddenly, everything went quiet.  I was puzzled until a great horned owl flew overhead.  I don’t know how those creatures knew that the owl was there, but they apparently did. Another large one is the snowy owl.  Seeing one of these in Pennsylvania was once almost unheard of.  A number of years ago, one was spotted around Cowansville.  These owls prefer open fields over woods.  I have never seen one, but I hope I do someday. One of the most common owls in this area is the screech owl.  It is named for its quavering song, which some folks find to be sad and mournful.  It is pretty hard to describe, but if, some night you hear it, you’ll know that’s what it is. Since we started with our biggest owl, let’s conclude with the very smallest.  That would be the saw-whet owl.  If you have ever heard someone sharpening a saw, then you know both what this little (eight inches or less) guy sounds like, as well as how he got his name.  One summer, we had a saw-whet which frequented a big pine tree in our yard.  For something so little, they make a really loud noise.  It is said that they sleep so soundly in the daytime that you can actually take them in your hand.  They feed on a variety of pests. On another front, I have noticed a lot of crows, especially on the hillside opposite my backyard. I’ve also seen a raven a time or two. “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe, is one of my very favorite poems.  Maybe we need to look at crows and ravens in the near future.

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