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In the Forests of the Night: Appalachia’s Great Horned Owl

In the Forests of the Night: Appalachia’s Great Horned Owl

There are many creatures you don't want to cross in Appalachian forests. Boar are vicious. Bear are strong. Bobcats will scratch your face off. But none are as brutal or dogged as the great horned owl. As William Funk explains in the below guest post, these mighty birds can be terrors, killing prey without mercy and in one horrific case, brutalizing an entire Kentucky family.

William should know. He is a nature lover, freelance writer, and documentary filmmaker who focuses on wildlife and land preservation. He lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and as you'll see at the end of the piece, he has had his own run-in with the great horned owl.

Have you had one too? If the great-horned has ever scared, startled, or amazed you, be sure to leave a comment and tell us about it.


Around 8:00 on the night of August 21, 1955, the Sutton farm near the hamlet of Kelly, Kentucky was visited by a mysterious and terrifying phenomenon. An hour after a brilliant streak of light had disappeared behind the brooding treeline surrounding the farmhouse, the family dog alerted Elmer “Lucky” Sutton and a visiting friend to strange goings-on in the backyard. Armed with a shotgun and a .22 rifle, the two men slipped quietly out the door to confront what was later described as a misshapen dwarf enveloped in “a greenish silver glow” lurking on a tree limb, a being possessed of an outsized head, “long arms” and “pointed ears.” Menacing yellow eyes glared down at them through the gloom. The two men opened fire, naturally, spraying the general vicinity with panicked bursts of birdshot and bullets, actions they said caused the apparition to “float” down to the ground, before they fled back into the house.

For the next three hours the family was besieged by a ruthless and unknowable presence. At one point an inhuman, staring face thrust itself before a kitchen window and was fired upon. Poking his head outside the back door, another friend who had been at the house that evening had his scalp torn open by one of the creatures that had positioned itself on the roof. This gentleman, a Billy Ray Taylor, later recalled that the beast had long “spindly” legs as well as fearsome claws. This first physical assault initiated a full-fledged panic and caused the eleven people within the farmhouse—including eight full-grown adults—to pile themselves into several automobiles and hightail it eight miles south to the Hopkinsville police department. Subsequent investigation by city, county and state officials (later joined, allegedly, by agents of the United States Air Force) failed to provide any evidence of the night’s encounter other than the hole in the kitchen window screen produced by a jittery shotgun blast.
What evil presence was behind this sinister visitation? Meteor activity had been widely reported over the region that night which might explain the UFO-like streak of light but what about the yellow-eyed monsters that trapped an entire extended family of taxpayers in their home for three solid hours? Was it cabin fever? Bad whiskey? Mass hysteria? Or perhaps it was something even stranger than the fictional aliens the Sutton family still swears by, creatures every bit as eerie, formidable and bizarre as they were described, but beings decidedly of this planet.
While we will never know exactly what went on that weird moonlit night, it seems probable that the Sutton’s uncanny visitors were specimens of Bubo virginianus, the great horned owl, known as the “flying tiger” for its single-minded savagery when hunting. Not even eagles, not even the peregrine falcon or northern goshawk, can match the horned owl’s pitiless devotion to the slaughter of such a wide variety of prey. Contributing to its diverse larder is the fact that horned owls are sexually dimorphous, with females often significantly larger than males. Males average a little over three pounds, while females can weigh up to five pounds. This trait provides the great horned with a wide array of prey species from which a pair may select on any given night. And when a horned owl goes in for the kill it keeps fighting until either it or its quarry is dead—there is no retreat.
[caption id="attachment_6223" align="alignright" width="222"] Photo provided by Sandy and Chuck Harris.[/caption]
Standing two feet tall and boasting a five-foot wingspan, the great horned owl is a common bird throughout its North American range. While there is a great deal of dissimilarity among even local populations, horned owls in the southern Appalachians generally display a rustier coloration than their gray northern cousins. The great horned owl’s feathers are richly patterned in variations of maple, black and pale gray, with a buff undercoat barred with heavy streaks of chocolate.
This cryptic coloration makes for excellent camouflage when the owl naps in the afternoons, perched on a tree limb near the trunk and elongating its body to blend into the bark. Tufted “horns” (plumicorns) used for both camouflage and non-vocal communication can accentuate the deception. While regurgitated pellets of indigestible hair, teeth and toenails on the forest floor may give away their proximity, hunters and hikers routinely pass unknowingly beneath dozing owls, whose ability to mold their feather conformation and body shape to blend into their environment is without parallel among American birds.
All adult great horned owls have outsize eyes with radiant golden irises, jammed with rods to facilitate a night vision 100 times greater than our own. The eyes deliver 10X sharper vision than ours and are fully the size of an adult human’s, so large that they are immobile within their sockets, a physiological necessity which gave rise to the owl’s fourteen neck vertebrae (twice that of other birds) and 270˚ head rotation. A semi-transparent nictating membrane is used as a third eyelid to regularly clean the lenses and provide protection just before an attack. The pupils are capable of independent dilation, and the great horned owl, like many raptors, can stare unfazed into the noonday sun.
If the horned owl’s vision is supernal, its hearing is even more astonishing. The great horned’s eyes are set within concave partial facial discs that channel the faintest vibration directly to its ear holes, which are placed asymmetrically on the head to facilitate the triangulation of sound emissions and help the owl pinpoint the location of prey in dim light.
Possessed of uncanny sight and hearing, enormously powerful, relentless, insatiable, and utterly without fear, the great horned owl exerts dominion over all other creatures of the American night. While rabbits are generally preferred, prey species run the taxonomic scale: crayfish, snakes, shrews, hares, squirrels, sandpipers, bats, rats, mice, fish, hawks, owls, pigeons, possums, herons, groundhogs, weasels, woodpeckers, geese, crows, porcupines, skunks, housecats—in short, anything the owl can physically overcome.
Great horned owls hunt by perching on limbs and waiting in silence for their extraordinary senses to betray the presence of prey on the ground. Once detected by a healthy adult, the victim stands little chance of escape.
Like many raptors (Latin for “one who seizes by force”), horned owls employ what is best described as fury when subduing large prey, maximizing the damage they inflict so as to ensure a quick kill and little or no dangerous resistance. The great horned owl is, after all, only a bird, and birds are delicate, hollow-boned creatures, half air themselves, and cannot withstand the concussive blows that solid-boned mammals may shrug off. The legendary ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey (1937), recorded the horned owl’s killing rage:
“A few feet in front of me was a large Horned Owl in a sort of sitting posture. His back and head were against an old log. His feet were thrust forward, and firmly grasped a full-grown skunk. One foot had hold of the skunk’s head and the other clutched it tightly by the middle f the back. The animal seemed to be nearly dead, but still had strength enough to leap occasionally into the air in its endeavors to shake off its captor. During the struggle, the Owls’ eyes would fairly blaze, and he would snap his beak with a noise like the clapping of your hands.”
Yet this killing machine, ferocious without peer, is also a devoted parent; in fact much of the hunting by a mated pair is done for that most elemental and noble of motives—perpetuation of the species. Horned owls are savagely protective of their offspring, and the murderous strength unsheathed in combat is easily turned on interlopers who dare to approach an occupied nest. Bent recollects one incautious egg collector’s description of a typical two-pronged attack:
“Swiftly the old bird came straight as an arrow from behind and drove her sharp claws into my side, causing a deep dull pain and unnerving me, and no sooner had she done this than the other attacked from the front and sank his talons deep in my right arm causing blood to flow freely, and a third attack and my shirtsleeve was torn to shreds for they had struck me a third terrible blow on my right arm tearing three long, deep gashes, four inches long; also one claw went through the sinew of my arm, which about paralyzed the whole arm.”
The horned owl’s drive to satisfy the hunger of its young is such that it kills more, sometimes much more, than even gluttonous owlets can eat. Young great horned owls are fierce competitors for meat and will sometimes kill one another when provender is insufficient, but the parents’ hunting prowess is such that in most years this is rarely a concern. According to Bent, one nest contained “a mouse, a young muskrat, two eels, four bullheads [catfish of the genus Ameiurus], a woodcock, four ruffed grouse, one rabbit, and eleven rats. The food taken out of the nest weighed almost eighteen pounds.”
Great horned owls mate for life but live separately for about a quarter of each year. After spending the fall and early winter hunting apart from one another a mated pair is eager to renew their bond, with hooting courtship serenades beginning in the frigid depths of January, earlier than any other North American avian species. The courtship ritual is purposefully seductive and even touching: after gentle hooting has lured her within range the male softly approaches the larger female, strokes her with his bill, lowers his wings and makes a series of solemn bows to her before renewing his tender caresses.
Eventually the pair flies off together to mate and find a home to rear their young, usually the abandoned nest of a hawk, crow, heron or squirrel situated 30-70 feet above the ground. If they are unable to find a suitable empty nest before the female is ready to lay eggs, the mated pair will simply appropriate an occupied one, driving away or killing the residents. Attacked during the night when they are at their most vulnerable, even the largest hawks are unable to withstand the great horned owl.
A few years ago, having finally talked my girlfriend at the time into a camping trip, we were comfortably ensconced at the campground of Pilot Mountain State Park in North Carolina, a mountainous island of southern Appalachia set in the undulating western Piedmont. It was late November (an initial source of friction) and we were hunkered down by the side of the dying campfire, preparing to turn in, when turning to say something to me she suddenly stared wildly over my shoulder and screamed. I whirled around but saw nothing. “Someone was in that tree,” she whispered, seizing my arm. “I saw his eyes in the firelight, looking down right at us!”
Assurances of safety were useless; nothing would do but that I make a dutiful patrol around the perimeter with my flashlight, my mind on other things, and scan the star-rimmed pines for arboreal rapists. Finally she calmed down enough for us to retire, still insisting she’d seen someone staring at her with great yellow eyes from midway up the pitch pine on the edge of our campsite.

Hours later I was jolted from sleep by the screams of a child far out in the woods. It went on, horribly, for perhaps ten seconds, when it was abruptly stifled. Thankfully my companion had remained asleep—this would have been the last straw, occasioning a panicked midnight retreat back to Raleigh. I’d tried to tell her what our visitor had likely been, and the dying rabbit I’d just heard, now being carried off to another world, was unmistakable confirmation. The great horned owl she had seen had simply been investigating these latest visitors to its kingdom and, having satisfied its burning curiosity, without a sound had vanished back into the woods, where it had other business.