Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 22, 2009

Death in the Snow: Part II

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:17 pm

If fog comes in on little cat feet, then surely death comes on cat-owl feet. It glides in on silent flight and snuffs life into the powdery snow (with apologies to Carl Sandburg). The cat-owl, better known as the Great-horned Owl or Flying Tiger is often characterized as a “ferocious”  predator in the literature. It ‘s not really fair to see anything other than instinct behind the predatory skills of this owl. They are persistent, efficient, and eclectic in their tastes – cool and able rather than ferocious. Now, Rabbits, if asked and assuming they could actually answer, would certainly call these large owls ferocious in the extreme. “Cold killers, that’s what they are. Maniacs out for blood and the thrill of killing our kind” they’d say before bounding off to sooth their deep angst with a sprig of tender blackberry vine. Great-horns are rabbit specialists, you see. These powerful birds, with a wing span of up to 5 feet, are one of the few local birds of prey that can take down full grown rabbits.

The deep whiteness that now blankets the countryside  provides written testimony for the nocturnal efforts of the Great-horned Owl. I came upon a fresh owl kill site alongside a snowy back country road a few days ago.  At a point where the road cut through a brushy wood, rabbit tracks peppered each side of the way. This was a rabbit crossing where timid nightime cottontails dash over the open space seeking, I guess, those tender blackberry vines. I’m sure the vines are equally as tender on either side, but those on the “other” side are always more tender.  No sooner had I recognized this as a  crossing point than I spotted the distinctive mark of a kill to my left (see below).

A fan of feather tip marks surround a central spot matted with blood, guts, and hair. A pile of innards,the digestive tract, was deposited off to the side. It’s hard to imagine that crows would turn down  fresh innards on a cold day, so I imagine they hadn’t discovered the place yet.  Apparently the owl spent enough time at the spot while dismantling the bunny to melt a patch of snow under its warm bottom.

Taking in a wider look at the site (see here) reveals that the owl probably grabbed onto and killed the rabbit about six feet away. There is another set of wing marks there along with a drag mark connecting it to the final eating  location. Owls use their powerful claws to literally crush their prey. Once the bunny was held in the predator’s grip, there was little it could do but wait for its trip to the great blackberry patch in the sky. Once the prey was dead, the owl used it’s sharply hooked beak to rent it asunder.

There were several other snow marks in the vicinity made by the owl. One was a brush mark made by the primaries after a low pass – perhaps made as the killer flew in low to make the kill (see title picture). Another spot shows where it plunged into the snow for some reason (see here).

Great-horned Owls will tackle  just about anything. Although rabbits are high on their list, they will eat mice, squirrels, pheasants, songbirds, crows, snakes, fish, and chickens if the opportunity presents itself.  One even attacked a white spot on the back of a very surprised collie. I often find myself getting asked if Great-horns will take house cats. As you might expect my answer, often accompanied by a smile, is that they will and often do. Cats and rabbits are about the same size.  However, I do try to clarify things by stating that they don’t take true house cats but only cats allowed by their owners to wander about in the great outdoors.

I was doing a bit of research on this subject and found several passages in Arther Cleveland Bent’s classic 1937 book on Birds of Prey. Mr. Bent had little to say about rabbits except that Great-horned Owls eat them with relish, but he did report at least three instances where cats were taken. One of them proved to be too much for the owl to handle and it had to drop his ferocious prey!  Allow me to quote a passage in which an observor, Mr. Oliver Austin narrates another cat vs. owl event. The man  frightened an owl off it’s kill and he “…stopped to pick up it’s prey which to my surprise (and delight) proved to be a half-grown house cat.”I find it comforting to know that someone, way back when, wrote a passage which sounds like I wrote it.  I’m not sure even I would have said “delight,” but there it is.

I was delighted to have found the rabbit kill site – not delighted at being in the presence of death but because it gave me an opportunity to record and memorialize a moment in natural history. This bunny did not die in vain.  The rabbits probably do not share my enthusiasm.

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