7 Facts about the Great Horned Owl (well, one is still up for debate)

Last week, we were delighted to see our first Great Horned Owl (GHO) in Central Park. Great Horned Owls, also known as Tiger Owls and Hoot Owls, are the most adaptable and pervasive owl in the Americas.  We picked the top 7 facts that spoke (er, hooted?) to us most.

1. They are Master Hunters.


Of all animals, Great Horned Owls are among the most efficient hunters. They hunt at night using their specially adapted vision and hearing to locate prey quickly.  They are silent in flight and they attack with stealth and strength, often killing their prey instantly.  They have a kill rate of 85%.

2. Their eyes are enormous.


Great Horned Owl eyes are even large compared to other owls!  If human eyes were proportionally the same size, they would be like two grapefruits, weighing about 5 lbs each. More details on their eyes here.

3. Their “horns” aren’t ears, but their ears are totally amazing too.


Great Horned Owls, and a few other “eared” owl species actually have feathers that form the shape of their horns, or ear tufts.  It’s not yet totally understood what they are for but the leading theories are that they aid in communication and camouflaging.  Their actual ears are located asymmetrically on each side of the head.  The owl can use this asymmetry to turn its head and quickly know where a sound is coming from.

4. Their grip is scary strong.

Great Horned Owl Talon
Great Horned Owl Talon. From The Modern Apprentice: http://www.themodernapprentice.com/feet.htm

Great Horned Owls feet have been measured to grip about 500 pounds per square inch (there are reports ranging from 300 to 3000 PSI). For comparison, the average human grip is about 20 PSI. (Thanks Chris from CPC!)

5. They can reconfigure their talons.

Great Horned Owl Talon
Great Horned Owl Talon in hunting posture. From http://people.eku.edu/ritchisong/birddigestion.html

The outside talon on each GHO foot is opposable, just like human thumbs.  This means they can switch between a 3-1 talon configuration for perching and a 2-2 configuration for hunting and grasping.

6. They are a 2-foot tall powerhouse.

owl and ewok
Shot taken on the Forest Moon of Endor.

Great Horned Owls range from 1.5 to 2 feet in height and weigh about 2-4.5 lbs.  That’s just a foot shorter than an Ewok!  And considering that they can take down “almost any living creature that walks, crawls, flies, or swims, except the large mammals” (from “The Life History of American Birds Of Prey” by Arthur Cleveland Bent), even Ewoks should beware.

7. They know how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. [currently under debate]

owl and tootsie pop

In 1969, a Tootsie Pop commercial asked what has now become an age-old question: “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?” In the ad, a wise cartoon owl answered “3 licks” but it cheated by biting.  Fortunately, thorough research has since been conducted both with human lickers (144 licks) and mechanical tongues (about 400).  The most recent study, published in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics indicated that it would take 1000-2500 licks to get to the center.   We may never have a definitive answer but if you do happen to conduct your own research, remember: “Give a hoot – don’t pollute!

A Very Temporary Hawk Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art starring Pale Male’s daughter

Hawk-tivity in the East Village has come to a near standstill as Gog pointed out earlier this week. So we ventured back up to Central Park this week to follow up on Pale Male and Octavia’s recently rehabbed and released fledgling (see WINORR releasing the bird, photos by Jean Shum, video by Cathy Weiner).

According to hawk watchers in Central Park, the bird has been on a bit of a cultural tour of 5th Avenue this week.  She spent time outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, waited in line to see the Woman in Gold at the Neue, and even checked out the Kandinsky’s at the Guggenheim.

After a couple of days with no sightings, we got word that the hawk was back along the northern edge of the Met at 86th St. and 5th Ave. For hours, the hawk put on a live show for spectators, joggers, and dogs alike.  

While visitors were dazzled just to see the hawk so closely, it turned out that she was doing a one-time-only, live, interpretive performance of pieces in the Met’s collection.

We are proud to bring you the highlights of her show.  


Art references (in order of appearance):

1. Inlay of “Horus of Gold”, 4th century B.C., Egypt

2. Banda Mask, 19th–20th century, Baga peoples; Guinea

3. Finial in the Shape of a Bird’s Head, 4th century B.C., Northwest China

4. “Butterfly” stool (model no. T–0521), 1956, Sori Yanagi 

5. Outermost Coffin, spring 1926, Harry Burton

6. Fan quilt, ca. 1900, American

7. Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife, 1936, Walker Evans

8. “Butterfly” ball gown, 1955, Charles James

9. Study of a Young Woman, ca. 1665–67, Johannes Vermeer

10. Bird I, 1986, Santiago Calatrava

          Congratulations and thank you to the lovely newlyweds!


Pale Male’s offspring treated & released back into Central Park

Great news from yesterday… WINORR released Pale Male’s now-healed fledgling back into Central Park after 2 weeks of treatment and care.  See their Facebook page for photos and video of the release. 

Central Park Hawk update:

Test results are in for the young hawk who died on August 12: rodenticide. More tests are being conducted to determine exactly what type of poison it was. 

The one who is still in the park was not spotted today.

Slightly longer update on Pale Male’s babies

An update on our story from yesterday:

The baby at WINORR is doing well today.  It has a healthy appetite and is eating a lot. No word yet on a possible release date.

The baby that has thus far eluded rescue was finally spotted today in the park. It flew around a bit, then sat for a few hours in a tree near Turtle Pond.  


It was awake and alert all afternoon, which is great news, although it still wasn’t very active. It might be coming of out its illness (talons crossed) but there have been cases in the past where a sick hawk seemed better one day then rapidly declined…so hawk watchers will be back tomorrow morning to check on its progress.


Pale Male’s Babies in Peril

Historically we’ve been focused on the East Village Red-tailed Hawks, but the story unfolding in Central Park this past week, simultaneously unsettling and heartwarming, was something we could not ignore.

It started last Saturday, August 8th, when one of Pale Male’s offspring was discovered by hawk watcher Susan Gibson.  It was in a tree looking quite ill: its  eyes were half closed and it hadn’t moved for hours. Concerned, long time hawk watchers Jean Shum, Nabil Esphahani, and Ann Shanahan kept watch over the baby until nightfall.


By Sunday morning, the bird looked even more exhausted and Ranger Rob (who was off duty) was called in to attempt a rescue.  Initially, the young hawk was too high in a tree to reach. Just as Rob approached, the hawk flew to an even higher window sill on The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  


There was no safe way to access it so the devoted rescuers had to do the hardest but most frequent activity when it comes to bird rescues…they had to wait. Luckily in this case, they didn’t wait long. Within an hour, the bird flew to the grass and Rob was able to safely catch it in a net. 


Jean and Rob drove the hawk to WINORR, a wonderful wildlife rescue organization that has helped with countless rescue efforts in the past. 


Although blood tests are inconclusive at this time, the hawk has been gaining strength and it is eating, which is a good sign. If When it recovers, it will be released where it was found in Central Park. 

Injuries and illness are common for young Red-Tailed Hawks this time of year as their parents feed them less to encourage independence. As the young are left to their own devices, they hunt poorly (often catching slower and sicker animals) and explore on their own (often getting stuck in places they shouldn’t be). 

On Tuesday, a second young hawk was spotted in a tree looking ill.  It was still there on Wednesday when heartbreaking news came in: a third young hawk was found dead near 77th St. and East Drive. Within the span of 4 days, all three of Pale Male and Octavia’s 2015 offspring were in peril.


Again, a group of people watched the sick hawk until late Wednesday evening.  By Thursday, the hawk still hadn’t moved and a rescue was in order. Here is where the story gets interesting on the human side of the equation. The hawk was sitting in a very dense tree, no ladder could reach it.  Perhaps, with a cherry picker, a rescue would be possible. But who has one of those on hand? The NYC Department of Parks and Recreation (Parks Dept.) and the Central Park Conservancy (CPC) cut through the bureaucracy and BS one would expect in any large, human-run organization, and they got a CPC cherry picker to the scene quickly (so quickly, in fact, that I assumed I had an hour to get there to witness the rescue…how wrong I was, I ended up sprinting a mile to make it in time!).


With the cherry picker in position, Rob and the folks from the Parks Dept and CPC discussed the best approach to take. As you can see in the video below, the thick foliage made it tough…

…and the bird flew to a nearby tree.  Because it still had the strength to fly, everyone decided to watch it for another day, and hope it would come down to a lower branch where it could be rescued.  I spent time with the group who stayed there vigilantly watching the hawk for hours and hours. While I was there, the hawk was alert a handful of times…


But spent most of the day stagnantly resting in the tree, ignoring the world around it. 


This is not normal behavior for a juvenile hawk at this age.  They should be practicing hunting, flying around, and exploring their environment (as we saw recently with the young hawk at the NYC Marble Cemetery).

By Friday morning, the hawk still hadn’t moved and probably hadn’t eaten for days, so Ranger Rob, Kevin Sisco, and some helpful park visitors (aaahh, the kindness of strangers!) worked together to stand up a giant ladder.


But alas, good things are never easy, and the ladder was too precarious to climb.  And so the team was back to square one…and the waiting ensued. 

But this time, Caroline Greenleaf, who is the Director of Community Relations at Central Park, got the cherry picker to assist in a second rescue attempt.  As you can see in this video (shot by Nabil Esphahani) Ranger Rob got part of the net onto the baby.  It then ducked, stepped back, and again flew to a nearby tree.  


It picked an even higher perch where a rescue wouldn’t be possible.


As of this morning, the hawk has moved from that perch and hawk watchers are searching for it.  After so many hot days without eating, the bird is likely in worse shape.  

We will continue to update you as this story unfolds.  If you do spot the hawk in the park, please let us know ( twohawksnyc@gmail.com ) and we will put the word out. 

Many thanks to Ranger Rob, CPC, Parks Dept., Caroline Greenleaf, and all the hawk lovers who have helped these hawks.