Learning to Adapt from Great Horned Owls

On a warm winter evening as the Santa Fe sky turned its usual celestial blue and pastel pink, I stand in a narrow canyon with my two year old. Last weekend on this spot, I saw an exquisite male Great Horned Owl sleeping in a husky juniper tree. His mate was perched on a cliff ledge above. A petroglyph of a boxy figure with horns rubbed into the chocolate brown rocks above stands guard over the canyon. Perhaps this was the ancient-ones’ way of acknowledging that this place belonged to the horned-ones even then.

I had been keeping tabs on this Great Horned Owl pair – one of the most adaptable birds. They are found all across North America living in a wide variety of deciduous and coniferous forests, even living in parks, suburban areas and cities. Here in the desert they live among cliffs and juniper trees.

Now what I find is a ring of rocks and the blackened edge of a pallet. Smoke lingers in the air. A rowdy group with a bonfire would have been out here during the owls’ hunting hours. I worry they scared the pair off their nesting grounds.

Owls are nocturnal, hunting mostly at night although I have seen them hunt in the daylight when tending to a nest full of babies. Their pupils open widely in the dark giving them excellent night vision. A squirrel watches our every move from the rocks above. An oversized cottontail rabbit bounds down the canyon and disappears between boulders. Owls are fierce predators and can take raptors much larger than themselves. The canyon is full of smaller mammals providing easy meals for the owls who can perch high up and swoop down to grab dinner with their razor sharp talons.

We follow a trail of owl droppings further up the canyon and find their nest tucked into the canyon wall. Great Horned Owls are the earliest nesting birds in North America. The large babies need the extra time, about 10 weeks, to reach flight size and learn hunting skills before going off on their own in the fall. They use nests built by other large birds rather than making their own. This one made of sticks and twigs was likely built by a red tailed hawk or crows. Owl pairs roost together near their chosen nest for months before laying eggs, but there are no signs of them today.

I head back down the dusty trail with my two-year-old in tow. The brown parched winter landscape is broken only by the muted green of junipers. Even the cholla that grows here like weeds are dried up. The ground is strewn with their holy bones.

Then, we hear them: “Hoooo-hoot-hoot.” The owl is far back up the canyon but its call reaches me full of power. My son draws a deep breath. We look at each other and smiles widened across our faces. “Owl!” he says with unusual clarity, his eyes as wide as saucers. We stand listening to the owls hooting as the light grows dim. Mated pairs are monogamous and defend their territories with vigorous hooting, especially this time of year in the winter before egg-laying. Although smaller than the female, the male has a louder and deeper voice. The pair call together, the female’s voice higher than her mate’s.

“They are not so easily chased off,” I whisper to my son. In a time when other species are in decline due to loss of habitat and human encroachment, the Great Horned Owls are holding steady, and in some areas even increasing in numbers. In A world shifting under climate change, these birds might have thing or two to teach us about adaptability, flexibility and tolerance.

We drive home in the twilight giddy knowing that the owl pair is settling in despite human disturbance and drought. They will soon have a nest full of downy babies.


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