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!

Pigeons, Pigeons, Sandhill Cranes

From the plentiful pigeons of New York City to the backyard ubiquity of Sandhill Cranes in Wisconsin, it’s easy to take for granted those things that surround us.

Pigeons, pigeons everywhere,
We walk by without a care,


Here’s one sitting looking pretty,


There’s one next to some graffiti,


This one’s shadow might be spying,


Here’s a flock of pigeons flying.


Sandhills, Sandhills, all around,
For miles we hear their rattling sound,


Here are some who stopped to prattle,


Zoom out and you’ll see some cattle,


Here’s one, like a pole he’s standing,


Here are two in mid-air, landing.


Do they look at us and think...

People, people, everywhere,
On the ground and in the air,

On the farm and on the street,
On their phones they text and tweet,

In their cars and trucks they speed,
barely ever taking heed,

It’s hard to care about their feelings,
They’re just silly human beings.

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.

Old Cemetery, New Tricks

One of the best things about New York City is that every place you step has a rich and storied history.  The East Village is rife with such tales and the New York City Marble Cemetery, where one of the young hawks recently spent an afternoon frolicking around, is no different.  

At its heyday in the 1830s, the cemetery was a fashionable place to be buried.  Underground marble vaults were thought to prevent the spread of yellow fever that had plagued the city since the 1790s.  President James Monroe was buried there in 1831 (and later moved) and there is even a prominent shipping merchant buried there…his name is, we kid you not, Preserved Fish.

According to Ephemeral New York, in the 1890s, Jacob Riis wanted to turn a nearby marble cemetery (the New York Marble Cemetery, which was started by the same people) into a playground for street kids who had no other place to play.  It didn’t happen quite how he intended, but a young hawk certainly had some fun there last week…


The young hawks are now 3 months old and they are learning to hunt.  Their parents are still making sure they are well fed in the meantime.  The cemetery is a perfect place for the hawk to practice: abundant squirrels and pigeons to go after and no people to get in the way! 

And this hawk was all over the place! It was very inquisitive.  Here it jumped on a bench…


And examined some greenery…


Here it is peeking behind a gravestone at a hidden squirrel…

“I’ll get you!!”


“Where’d you go?”


Later, it had a face off in a tree with a brazen squirrel…


Then the hawk lunged at it…


…but it was just posturing.  Maybe practicing its menacing looks.

It spotted something on the ground…


…a squirrel out in the open…


…it dove after it!


…to no avail.

At one point, the hawk was on a fire escape at the back of the cemetery for a while and some of the animals became braver, coming closer to us to see if we were offering any food (we weren’t)…


Later the hawk was exploring the ivy-covered wall on the western edge of the cemetery…


…and a squirrel was on the corner of the fence in a conundrum: it was exposed with a peanut in its mouth.  


So its options were to drop the nut and make a run for it or stay still and hope it wasn’t found out.  It took option B and quietly cried in fear – but thankfully it wasn’t discovered as its cries were muted by the peanut (the same mechanics as a trumpet mute!).

While the hawk flew around a lot, even above the fence once, surprising the humans on the sidewalk nearby…


…the funniest moments were when the hawk was stalking prey on the ground.  Here, the hawk sees something in the shrub…

After hours of exploration, the hawk flew up out of the cemetery and over 1st Avenue…


…circling higher and higher and eventually out of view into the summer sunset.