The Tigers of the Sky

Apr 6, 2015 by Steve Franklin

The “Great Horned Owl”. First let’s look at the word “Great”. It’s the largest and most powerful owl in the world and the most abundant owl in North & South America. Their eyes are very large and compared to humans they would be as big as oranges. Their keen sense of eyesight allows them to see in the darkness of night as they become one of the best stealth predators in the world. Their keen sense of hearing allows them to hear and pinpoint the squeak of a mouse at 900 feet away.
Great Horned Owls have some of the softest, lightest feathers of any bird in the world. Their soft feathers allow them to glide through the air without making any ruffling sounds of the feathers, kind of like floating on air to give them an even greater advantage of rising above and pouncing on prey. They have sensitive hearing, thanks in part to facial disc feathers that direct sound waves to their ears.
Great Horned Owls are fierce predators that can take large prey, including raptors, such as Ospreys, Peregrine Falcons, Prairie Falcons, other owls and Red Tail Hawks their own size. If this isn’t enough greatness, Great Horned Owls are the only animal on earth that will eat a skunk; this is due to their non-sense of smell. That’s right; great horned owls cannot smell anything. In the Arizona and Mexico desert regions the owls mainly prey upon rabbits, gophers, ground squirrels and any other small rodent or mammal running on the desert floor. They will also chase down other birds out of the sky to add to their diet.
Now, let’s look at the word “Horned”. It’s easy to see why they have “Horned” in part of their name. Common nicknames for the Great Horned Owl are the cat owl, hoot owl, big-eared owl and “the tigers of the sky”. Contrary to what you may think, their head tufts are not horns nor are they ears, but because of the tufts on their head they do resemble a cat with wings. It is not clearly understood what the tufts are for, but they act like a dogs ears in that the ears will perk up on alert and they fold down when they are disturbed. Their actual ear holes are a few inches away from the tufts on their head. Their ear holes are offset, that is, they are positioned at different levels from one another in their skull.
Most people think owls can turn their heads all the way around. Truth is; their eyes cannot turn and move in their sockets at all, so they swivel their head to change the direction they desire to look towards. Owls can swivel their head more than 270 degrees to look in any direction to compensate for not having eye sockets. They do this by using their fourteen cervical neck vertebrae, twice as many as you and I.
These two mother Great Horned owls that I captured in these photos are nesting in a saguaro cactus, a popular nesting sight in the Mexico and Arizona deserts. I was lucky enough to keep an eye out every day in a week’s time to see the three newly hatched owlets with their mother. I have seen several Great Horned owls in the Cholla Bay area flying in between homes chasing other birds, usually pigeons.
Both parents care for their baby owls. The mother sits on the nest for the first 2 weeks after hatching in late March every year. She will move to another spot in the nesting area very close to the owlets as the nest tends to get more crowded with growing babies. The mother is never farther than eyesight from the nest through each stage of the rearing.
The father Great Horned Owls job is primarily hunting and dropping off breakfast and dinner every day. I really hope to catch this event with my lens. He also keeps a guard out for any intruders that may be near. Ravens and crows are their biggest predator of the baby owls. I hear the males ‘Hooing’ from nearby when I approach a nest to capture photos of their family as if to warn me to not approach too close.
The young owlets will stay in the nest six weeks and then fledge, (fly from the nest). After they leave the nest they will still be near the parents as they teach them to hunt and survive in the wild for the remaining months of the summer before they fly off on their own venture of the world in the fall. Owls are the only raptors that stay with their parents for up to 6 months after hatching.

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