Whodunnit: The Foxhound or the Owl?

There’s an old notion that when hearing hoofbeats, people tend to look for horses, not zebras. We recently found bird feathers along with odd remnants under an oak tree in the backyard and assumed one of our dogs killed a mockingbird.

After all, Mr. Higgins (also known as the Sage Leopard, the inspiration for this blog site’s name) has from time to time killed at least two opossums. In the days after the bird kill, I noticed great agitation among a group of mockingbirds atop the fence. This gathering of angry birds happened multiple days in a row.

With our eyes to the ground and our minds in our normal, small orbits, it did not occur to us who the most obvious and likely culprit was: an owl. Then we went to an owl seminar at our local arboretum. Wow! They had a live Great Horned Owl and a Screech Owl, both of which had been rescued and treated for injuries but unable to return to the wild. We were introduced to these majestic creatures by volunteers from the Wildlife Center of Texas, a non-profit affiliated with the local SPCA.

Great Horned Owl ambassador
A Great Horned Owl “ambassador”

I didn’t know that the Great Horned Owl eats birds, including even Screech Owls. I just thought Great Horned Owls ate rodents. Oh, but they prey on so much more! I have seen the Great Horned Owl in the wild and in our neighborhood (in Harris County, Texas), but I had never laid eyes on the Screech Owl. It’s small! So small that a man walked up to the table where it was perched and reached across to pick up a flyer without even noticing this majestic creature right next to his arm. The volunteer cupped her hands out in front of the owl’s eyes to distract it from seeing the intruding arm.

Screech owl
Screech owl pictured with human hands for scale

I asked her about the racket among the mockingbirds and she agreed that they were likely agitated by the presence of an owl or a hawk. (We’ve actually seen a hawk eat a dove in our front yard.)

The presentation included owl pellets, which are cocoon-like wrappings containing bones and other animal parts the owls cannot digest. That’s when it dawned on us: the odd white remnants we saw under the oak tree near the mockingbird feathers had been owl pellets. Our dogs had been exonerated.

The very next day, B. discovered more owl pellets under a different oak tree. Come to think of it, Mr. Higgins had been inexplicitly barking at that tree a few evenings in a row. Now it all made sense. An owl is living in our backyard. We just can’t see it. We’ve craned our necks and looked up the trunks of various trees. Perhaps we could try playing owl call recordings to see if anyone responds.

Owl pellets under an oak tree

It is not amazing to me that an owl is present. What’s amazing is how oblivious we humans were to nature literally in our own backyard. It makes me wonder what else I am missing and encourages me to reach beyond normal routines to seek out additional knowledge.

Our world views must be informed by the actual world around us.

The Sage Leopard, thesageleopard@gmail.com