Last month, the article I submitted about the vision of owls was accompanied by a photo of an owl sitting on my wife’s arm, which drew some warranted criticism.
The photo suited my purposes well in that it allowed comparison of an owl’s eyes with human eyes. However, it also suggested that it is all right for lay people to handle owls. It isn’t. It is not only illegal, it also can be dangerous.
The great horned owl, like all birds of prey, is protected by law. It is not legal to molest, capture, injure or kill any owl. It is not even legal to possess a part of an owl, even a feather, without a permit.
Permits for possession of owls or owl parts are granted only to educational or research institutions. The only exception to this that I am aware of is for licensed falconers. They can legally possess a live bird under a host of restrictions.
Furthermore, great horned owls can be quite dangerous. The dangerous part of an owl is its feet.
References to a great horned owl’s grip strength state such things as equal to a golden eagle’s, equal to the bite of an adult German shepherd, five times stronger than the grip of a man or up to 500 psi.
The take-home message is that, if an owl grabs any part of you, there isn’t much you can do about it to get the owl to let go, short of injuring or killing it.
An owl attack will hurt — a lot. It can cause serious and permanent injury. More than one person has lost sight in an eye to an irate owl.
When an owl is killing something, it does so by grabbing it with both feet and hanging on until its prey suffocates or bleeds to death.
It will often peck at it with its sharp beak, but most of the killing is done with the feet, which are extremely powerful, while the talons are very sharp.
A 3-pound great horned owl can carry a 10-pound jack rabbit just by grabbing it with its talons and hanging on. To defend themselves from a large adversary such as a bear or a human, owls instinctively go for the head or face. However, the laws regulating our interaction with owls are not only for our benefit. They also are for the benefit of the owl. Baby owls need to learn about being adult owls from their parents. If they are raised by humans, they will think they are at least in part human.
That becomes a real problem when the owl matures and thinks about having a mate. If it thinks it is a human, it will likely choose a human mate. It will defend that mate and the territory it has chosen from other humans.
This is disastrous. Imagine visiting someone and having this huge bird with a 5-foot wingspan come at you and try to plant talons in you face or on your scalp. Most owls raised by humans either end up living a life in captivity or being killed. The particular owl shown with my wife is now wild and taking care of itself. Its story is still unfolding. It hasn’t chosen a mate yet, and we don’t yet know what it will choose. We see it only rarely now.
I hope at some time I will be able to write a happy postscript to this article referencing that owl. Seeing the owl only occasionally and not otherwise hearing about the owl from neighbors we are still taking as good news.
In the meantime, I would caution anyone about interacting with owls. If you encounter a baby owl on the ground, leave it alone.
Baby owls typically leave the nest before they can fly and have a rough first landing. They can still climb trees amazingly well. The parents are likely somewhere nearby, watching closely. If you just stand by, perhaps protecting the baby from cars, dogs or cats, you’ll see the amazing spectacle of how a baby owl climbs a tree. Owls are wonderful and fascinating creatures.
I have studied them for years and have had the good fortune of never being attacked. It may be in part, however, because of my respect for their wildness and their talons. It is better both for them and me that way.
(Allan Van Norman is a neurosurgeon at Medcenter One. A Minnesota native, he is a veteran of the U.S. Army and has birded in more than 75 countries on six continents.)