Great Horned Owl

Birds: Great Horned Owl

“Those big yellow unblinking eyes staring me down. I was locked on those eyes.” So reported my daughter, Eleanor, when talking about her favorite recent bird sighting. She has been transfixed by direct contact with one of my favorite owls, the Great Horned Owl.

Eleanor and Bryan, her boyfriend at the time, had been invited for small stipend to fix up an old sheepherders’ cabin near the town of Big Piney, Wyoming. The owner of the cabin was a man named Freddy Botur. His family had owned one of the largest ranches in Wyoming for nearly 200 years. The cabin was one of several in a complex of buildings that surrounded a beautiful old hay barn. Bryan and Eleanor spent a week in Big Piney, shoring up one of those cabins, tearing down bits and pieces of cracked mortar, replacing drywall, and painting the interior.



The two wore masks to cover their noses and mouths from the soot and dust that flew into the air as they worked. They unloaded everything from inside the main cabin, which had five rooms: a living room, three bedrooms and a phenomenal kitchen. It was faster when the two worked together, but some spaces were tight and it proved better to work on different parts of the project. The unloading the household goods was fast and easy work. The best part was that it took them outside every few minutes to enjoy the fresh, clean air.

Before they took the assignment, Freddy had mentioned on the phone that there was a Great Horned Owl in the barn. He believed the bird’s scavenging was the reason the mouse population was under control. Immediately on hearing about the owl, Eleanor made up her mind to pay a visit to the barn and spot that owl.

Photo by Gordon from desertwing.blogspot.com

Photo by Gordon from desertwing.blogspot.com

On that first day, when Bryan was involved in some close work on his own, Eleanor went to see if the owl were in the barn. Since owls are nocturnal, she was not sure what they do in the daytime. She walked alone toward the barn. As soon as she stepped inside the barn door, she looked up. Sitting on the big open rafters was an alert and very awake owl. They locked eyes. There she was, out of her element, in the presence of the rightful owner of the space, a gorgeous Great Horned Owl. She said it was unlike anything she had ever experienced. “I was star struck in a way. Those big yellow unblinking eyes staring me down. I was locked on those eyes. My heart was beating a million miles a minute.”

She hurried back to the cabin to tell Bryan that she had seen the owl. She was so excited to tell him about it. The two returned to the barn immediately so that Bryan could see it for himself. They walked together as quietly as they could, without speaking. “At least I thought we were being quiet. We tiptoed our way through the sagebrush as we made our way to the barn.” They both saw the owl at the same time and he saw them. Just as they arrived at the entrance, the owl looked at the couple right in the eyes and then jumped from of his perch on the rafters. Falling he spread his six-foot wings and dove through an open window on his way to the pasture. Eleanor said she screamed a little bit because she felt that the owl was diving right towards her head. “I thought he’s going to pick me up and fly me away.”

Photo from clearwindsblowoverthemoon.wordpress.com

Photo from clearwindsblowoverthemoon.wordpress.com

Eleanor and Bryan were able to see the first owl and a second one a few more times while doing their work on the cabin. Most days they worked for up to twelve hours painstakingly getting all of the interior parts ready for the winter. Eleanor took time each day to see if the owls were sticking around.

One afternoon she spent nearly an hour staring at one of the owls, and the time seemed to zoom by. It was a remarkable experience for the two of them. They even caught videos of one in flight. Eleanor remarked, “I’ve never been so close to an owl before. I never realized how magical they are. It took my breath away to stare eye to eye with such a beautiful bird. And those eyes!”

Big Horned Owl with prey

Big Horned Owl with prey

The Big Piney trip ended on the night before Eleanor was to fly to San Francisco to start graduate school, making it a sad trip in many ways. But looking into this owl’s eyes and feeling the power of his talons carrying her away seemed a metaphor for her life. “I was so crazy about Bryan this trip. I definitely thought I was going to marry him. My move to San Francisco to follow my career was pivotal in our relationship…Bryan stayed in Jackson to play for one more season. We were never as close again.” One year later Eleanor felt bitter sweet about the week in Big Piney. She said she would never forget those owls.

And so it goes.