It's a large, fearless creature.
One of Minnesota’s most recognizable owls is the great horned owl. Its size alone sets it apart from most other owls, but so do those little feather tufts on top of the species’ head, sometimes mistakenly believed to be “ears”. Known to prey on animals as large as foxes, great horned owls are impressive birds.
Without a doubt, great horned owls are large and fearless owls. Capable of capturing and killing animals such as rabbits and hares, skunks, cats, and even foxes, they also prey on insects, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. And it’s probably for this reason—not being choosy when hungry—that great horned owls are so successful and widely distributed throughout North America.
I’ve been fortunate to have encountered great horned owls many times throughout my life. Several of these encounters have resulted in surprising observations, such as the time a great horned owl swooped me three times while I was walking across a hayfield on my way to hunt deer from an elevated tree stand.
Another fascinating encounter occurred in the Colorado Rockies while I was elk hunting. As I sat hidden in the forest adjacent to a mountain meadow, I watched a great horned owl as it perched on a dead limb of a large lodge pole pine tree. Several minutes passed by as the bird stood motionless on the branch while peering down at the ground. Suddenly, it launched itself from the limb and dove to the forest floor and disappeared in the meadow grass. A second later, it was airborne and clutching tightly in its talons a struggling chipmunk.
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 Sonoron 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.
Muscogee 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 great horned owl is the heaviest of all North American species of owl. With 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 up to 20 years of age in the wild, are just now beginning to re-establish pair-bonds for the soon-to-arrive nesting season. It won’t be long when mated pairs will once again mate and begin nesting. And because great horned owls don’t build their own nests, eggs are typically laid inside old abandoned crow, raven, or red-tailed hawk or northern goshawk nests. Both the male and female share in the demanding responsibilities of caring and raising their young.
The softly emitted, “Hoo, hoo-doo, hoooo, hoo” vocalization of the great horned owl—which in my book is a call as primordial as the howl of wolves, the bugle of bull elk, and the yodel of common loons—is a familiar call of our wild Minnesota. A special and captivating raptor, the large and powerful great horned owl inhabits forest and fields most everywhere as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane likes to hear from his readers. Email him your favorite outdoors experiences and wildlife encounters at email@example.com.