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The meanest birg alive

OUTDOOR TALES:

April 26, 2001|By AL KALIN, Special to this newspaper

What bird do you think is the meanest alive?

It's so ferocious it's compared to the wolverine of North America. It fears no other bird and man is its only real enemy. It's found in most of North and South America and is common in the Imperial Valley.

It nests in mesquite, salt cedar, eucalyptus and most commonly, date trees, yet few of us have ever seen it. It lives in our cities as well as the surrounding farmland, desert and brushy areas along the New and Alamo rivers.

It grows up to 25 inches tall and has a wingspan of 5 feet. It kills prey three times larger than itself. The victim is usually killed instantly by its long, sharp talons. This fearsome bird's diet is varied and may include frogs, fish, raccoons, cats, dogs, porcupines, turkeys, great blue herons, ducks, geese, swans, snakes, turtles and even alligators. It fears nobody and eats everything in its path.

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Although it often makes a hair-raising scream when it attacks its prey, it also makes a catlike "MEEE-Owww," a bark, and even a coo like a dove.

Have you guessed what bird it is yet? I'll give you an easy clue. The most common call it makes is, "hoo-hoohoooooo hoo-hoo." Even if you have never heard one in the Valley, you've heard them on TV or in the movies. It is the great horned owl, the most prevalent of all owls in North America, the star of Halloween and scary movies.

A great horned owl showed up the other night and sat in the old thornless mesquite next to our house. It's resonant territorial call was soothing to hear but I wondered about the lifespan of the two wild cats that live on mice and lizards around our house.

My first run-in with a great horned owl occurred 15 years ago when George and I were hunting coyotes late at night. We were sitting in a field side by side. I had the spotlight while George manned the electronic caller, which was nestled between his legs blasting out the squeal of a wounded cottontail rabbit. We never saw the great horned owl that swiftly and silently flew in and sliced the top right out of George's cap.

It took awhile to figure out what happened. George was flopping around on the ground, holding his head and screaming louder than the electronic game call. When I pointed the spotlight at the branch of the salt cedar tree behind us where the owl landed, the beam bracketed the most intense, fiercest face and set of yellow eyes I have ever seen. The devil himself couldn't have made a bigger impression on me.

George was very, very lucky. The red welt where the owl's talons parted his hair barely even bled.

Two years ago a pair of great horned owls built a nest in a date palm at our farm shop and reared two young ones. At the time, no one was living in the house at the shop and the owls had the run of the place.

Before long the two fledgling owls were flying and almost as large as their parents. Every summer afternoon the four would sit in the shade in the cool grass, spreading their wings to help cool off.

Soon after they moved into the shop area things began to disappear. The 15 cottontail rabbits that lived around the shop were the first to go. They disappeared slowly, one by one. Then the cat came up missing, followed a few weeks later by the family of skunks that lived under the house.

One morning I found one of the young owls dead beside the road. A car had hit it during the night as it swooped down after its prey. Now only three survived as a family. Two burrowing owls were next to go and a week later the three great horned owls started perching on the open beams in the shop in the early morning. If not disturbed by any loud noise, they would stay and watch us work until the steel building heated up. Then they would fly to the shady side of the house and sit in the Chinaberry tree.

As September rolled around most of the living creatures at the shop had vanished and the owls began to spend more time in a stand of eucalyptus trees down the road. My friend Dave had come to spend the day bird watching. We went to the shop early to see if the owls were there.

As we entered the shop, the young owl glared at us from straight ahead but off to the side was a sight I will never forget. One of the adults was perched on a beam holding a large barn owl in its talons. As we watched the great horned owl effortlessly lifted up the large prey in his talons and shook it at us as if to say, "Look what I got for breakfast. You go get your own."

Outdoor Tales columnist Al Kalin may be reached by e-mail at akalin@quix.net

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