The answer to their question is them. The great horned owl. They’re out there, all over the place, in farm fields and neighborhoods, big cities and secluded forests. A map of their range shows them blanketing almost the whole of North America. It’s little wonder that they are so widespread. Physically speaking, they are roughly comparable to red-tailed hawks in size, and like those everyday raptors, their size and power let them adapt to a variety of circumstances. Their name comes from two feather tufts on either side of their head that give their silhouette the impression of having horns. They are the biggest owl we have in the desert southwest, and one of the biggest in North America. That size advantage over smaller owls like western screech owls and the sleek and ghostly barn owl puts them in a unique place as a dominant nocturnal predator. They have the power of a big hawk combined with the tremendous advantage of excellent eyesight in low-light conditions. Diurnal raptors like hawks and falcons can’t see at all when it’s dark out, essentially giving the great horned owl free rein once the sun sets. As if built-in night vision wasn’t enough, great horned owls are, with the exception of their famous vocalizations, almost completely silent – even when flying at full speed. Their feathers are specifically designed to muffle sound: their flight feathers have ragged, asymmetrical edges which practically eliminate the traditional whooshing noise that comes from a flapping bird. This allows them to change perches or even attack without betraying their position. Their size further gives them a wide variety of potential prey, and they have been known to eat anything from mice and insects to jackrabbits and diurnal birds they catch roosting.
While not always as long of body as more commonly spotted hawk species, great horned owls are solidly built, often weighing well over 1,000 grams. All that power crammed into a compact shape turns them into something resembling a feathered bowling ball: a swift, silent bowling ball sailing through the night, slamming into rats, rabbits, and whatever else it happens to see. Great horned owls can exert a tremendous amount of pressure with their powerful feet, and with their comparatively husky size, they’re also strong enough to carry prey away until they find a safe place to eat. While any of these attributes would lead to a very successful hunter, great horned owls have combined them to develop a tactic that is seldom available to other raptors. Most birds of prey regard one another as competitors or threats; the great horned owl has come to see many of them as prey. A powerful hawk or falcon is next to helpless at night, and an owl that comes across one roosting will often try to kill it, and if successful, eat it. It’s both a meal, and one less rival for finite resources. If that sounds brutal on the owl’s part, consider that it works both ways. Owls can see during the day, but they are certainly out of their element, not to mention exhausted from a night of hunting. Great horned owls spend the day attempting to rest while hiding from angry hawks that are just as quick to attack, and if possible, kill them. According to Cornell University, corvids like ravens and crows have a particular hatred for these owls, and will go out of their way to mob them en masse in retaliation for the fact that great horned owls won’t hesitate to kill them if they catch them at night.
It’s not easy, or pretty. Life in the wild never is. But the birds themselves are beautiful. Owls are like a mirror image of hawks, eagles, and falcons, taking over at the changing of the guard every dusk and relinquishing it at dawn. The great horned owl is as majestic and stunning to behold as any diurnal bird of prey, and though harder to spot, every bit as common. You’re less likely to see them in quite the same light, literally speaking, as their contemporaries, but in many ways, catching the silhouette of a silent powerhouse perched outside your house at night is even more exciting. If you are fortunate enough to hear them ask “who,” you’ll feel especially privileged to see this stunning predator and know the answer.