Skip to content

Hawks and Owls

May 23, 2011

On these pleasant spring evenings, I enjoy sitting in my yard after dark. I pay attention to the phases of the moon, the constellations in the stars, and the sounds of the season. It is a time when my mind can catch up with my body, an opportunity for my soul to be restored. On a recent night, a slight breeze gently moved the trees. A bullfrog croaked from the pond, crickets chirped from the flowerbeds, and a mockingbird sang his repertoire from high in the weeping willow tree.  I was enveloped in solitude and deep in contemplation.

Suddenly, a massive bird swooped across my yard. I was startled by the dark form with broad wings. Its silent flight was so quick and the night so dark that I could not identify the creature. It was gone within seconds. The bird had launched from an oak tree in pursuit of something scurrying through a field behind my greenhouse. Though I could not identify the flying predator by sight, I suspected it might be an owl.

Two nights later, my suspicions were confirmed. I saw a great horned owl perched in the same oak tree. He is a welcome guest in our backyard. Great horned owls eat a variety of mammals. Rodents are like a blue plate special to them.  Rats, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits are all available in the open field behind our house.

I have often seen red-tailed hawks in our neck of the woods. Song birds fall silent when a hawk is around. Several years ago I saw a red-tailed hawk nosedive out of a dead wild cherry tree into the field behind our house. The efficient hunter snagged a four-foot black snake in his talons and carried the wriggling reptile across the railroad tracks to another perch in a tall tulip poplar tree.

Birds of prey are important to the ecosystem. Raptor is a Latin word that means to carry away. This is precisely what birds of prey do. They order takeout every time. They always get their meals to go, whisking away their victim.

This group of aerial warriors is made up, not only of hawks and owls, but also of eagles and osprey. When I was a boy, these birds were scarce. The use of heavy-duty pesticides had decimated their populations. Thankfully, they have made a remarkable comeback. Raptors perform essential tasks of pest control in our world. They help maintain a vital balance in nature.

These birds are commonly used as symbols for athletic teams. Both Temple and Rice Universities have adopted the Owl. The University of North Florida alumni are proud Ospreys. Teams known as Hawks and Eagles prevail, dominating the world of mascot names.

Individual birds in all of these raptor families call South Carolina home. I have seen osprey fishing in the Atlantic Ocean just off Pawley’s Island and in a farm pond in Whitestone in Spartanburg County. I have seen bald eagles perched in pine trees on North Island along Winyah Bay near Georgetown. I have seen the national bird flying high above Lake Jocassee.

I look forward to seeing my night visitor again. It’s good to know that a great horned owl is on duty. It makes for an effective Neighborhood Watch program.

I learned from my grandfather that owls and hawks are often paired, not as mates, but in sharing hunting areas. Such a relationship exists between the barred owl and its counterpart, the red-shouldered hawk. Both birds occupy the same range in the eastern United States, prefer moist woodland habitats, and eat similar diets. At different times, I have spotted both of these birds hunting the deep woods near Fairforest Creek in Camp Croft State Park. The barred owl pulls the night shift. The red-shouldered hawk works days.

Likewise, the red-tailed hawk and great horned owl frequently share the same area since the hawk hunts by day and the owl by night. Sometimes an owl will even occupy a hawk’s abandoned nest as her own. So those two birds frequent my backyard. The red-tailed hawk is active in daylight. The great horned owl is, well, a night owl.

The second night that I saw the great horned owl I heard the familiar call, “who ho-hooo, hooo.”  Rumor has it that male great horned owls respond to human imitation of their hoot. I tried to have a conversation with my new neighbor. I got no response. Maybe she was a female.

I heard about a fellow who had a similar experience. He said the females did not respond to him either, but the males did. He said he tried it out at a place called Hooters.

I guess he was talking about owls.

Kirk H. Neely
© May 2011

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: