A Nighttime Surprise

Along the Path:

A Young Person’s Guide to Exploring Nature

A Nighttime Surprise

By Susan Rothrock Deo

The other night I glanced out the windows in our family room at the city lights twinkling in the distance. A huge winged shadow interrupted my view and settled onto a perch at the pinnacle of our avocado tree. I recognized that shape: a great horned owl! I stared, mesmerized, at his image silhouetted against the sparkling lights of the city. Body still as a statue, his head turned side to side.

“What are you staring at?” my husband asked.                                 

I pointed to the owl. We often hear them calling, “Ho-hoo-hoo-hoo,” early in the morning before we are up, or in the evening after we’re in bed. Sometimes we spot one perched on a telephone wire when walking the dogs at night, but this was special.

He got his camera and sat outside taking photo after photo. The owl obliged. I watched from inside, determined not to disturb either of them. The majestic bird must have stayed there ten minutes or more, soaking up our canyon, searching for prey (I vote for gophers, Mr. Owl). Several nights later he came back again to the same perch.

The great horned owl, the second largest owl in North America, is found throughout the Americas. Our California one is a bit smaller and darker, sort of a mottled brown, almost striped, but still the characteristic shape and relative size: feathery tufts at its ears, round disk of a face, hefty silhouette. Great horned owls are 17-25 inches tall with a wingspan of 3-5 feet. They have super-strong talons with crushing power much stronger than that of the human hand. Their eyes, almost as big as ours, are quite large for a bird. Theirs are, proportional to body size, among the largest in terrestrial vertebrates. Owls can’t move their eyes like we do. They have to turn their heads instead. They can rotate their heads 270 degrees; that’s three quarters of a circle. How far can you turn your head?

Owls eat just about anything that walks, crawls, flies or swims, except large mammals. They swallow their prey whole. They don’t have teeth or enough stomach acid to break down all the skulls, teeth, claws and feathers that could harm the owl’s delicate digestive system. Instead, they compress all these indigestible bits into a compact pellet two or three inches long that they regurgitate. We dissected owl pellets in my college zoology class to see what the owls had eaten and found bones of a shrew and a field mouse.

Every once in a while, I scan the night sky looking for our owl. I hope we see him again soon.

Susan Deo has taught life science and environmental education from preschool through college. A docent with Los Serenos de Point Vicente, she has published short stories and essays and is working on picture books and middle grade novels.

Owl photo by Naresh Deo

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