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Revenge of the wild: The owl and the terrier

When it comes to leash laws and not following them, police and park rangers aren't the only enforcers.
The park's not all fun and games

The park's not all fun and games Drawing: Evan Anderson

A Great Horned Owl

A Great Horned Owl Michael Mees

It was one of those gray late-November afternoons that might as well be evening. We hurried down the path at Discovery Park, past the old fort church, hoping to catch a sliver of sunset at the bluff’s edge. A woman walked up the path with a leashless little terrier — a toy Scottie or Skye?—wheeling about her, yipping manically. “He smells rabbits,” she explained. I stowed the lecture I’ve been known to dispense (yes, I’m one of those people) about keeping your dog leashed in wildlife habitat; no birds would be nesting in the grass at this time of year, and the rabbits are introduced pests the park keepers would love to be rid of. I kept the friend’s dog I’d volunteered to walk on her leash and told her to take no notice of that bad example.

We approached the big maple tree that perches perilously above the cliff, the centerpiece of the bluff vista. I at first felt, then saw, an enormous shadow glide silently across the sky from the same direction we’d just left, like a horror-movie special effect.

The shadow landed, silent still, on a branch midway up the tree, and its silhouette took shape. Its wings heaved like sails as it settled onto its perch, and when it lifted its head twin horns stood against the sky. It hunched down, then jerked sharply upright, repeating the sequence again and again. I recognized the motion from watching the sharp-shinned hawks that lived in the cemetery atop Queen Anne dismember house sparrows in my backyard.

However spooky this flying shadow looked, its identity was no mystery. It was a great horned owl, the king of the Bubo clan, digging into a catch that looked much larger than a house sparrow. These jumbo owls are hardly rare sightings; they rule night skies from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. They’re so fearless and versatile, eating just about anything they can catch, that they’ve thrived amid human encroachment; the Seattle Audubon Society reports “a significant increase in Washington since 1966.” But it was the first time I’d seen one in the wild (I’m no birder, just a fellow traveler), a thrilling sight.

One mystery remained, however. Was it munching on a rabbit flushed out by the terrier, or on the terrier? No terriers yipped when we walked back up the path. With claws exerting 300 pounds of pressure per square inch, great horned owls can and occasionally do kill prey even larger than themselves.

So keep your dogs tied, especially in rabbit country. Police officers aren’t the only leash-law enforcers in this town. As for any free-ranging, bird-stalking housecats, an avian avenger awaits. In real life, “The Owl and the Pussycat” would have a very different ending.

 

 

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget Sound; Love, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics. Scigliano also works as a science writer at Washington Sea Grant, a marine science and environmental program based at the University of Washington. He can be reached at eric.scigliano@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Sun, Dec 9, 9:49 a.m. Inappropriate

http://www.boredpanda.com/owl-camouflage/

Speaking of owls... One of the reasons they are such great hunters.

KarenLee

Posted Sun, Dec 9, 6:17 p.m. Inappropriate

I too was one of "those" persons who looked askance (or worse,) at dogs, until I inherited one, and a miniature poodle at that.....hey, if you can't beat 'em and end up joining 'em, might as well go all the way.

There is no excuse for letting them run about where they shouldn't, though, dog lover or not. We haven't been stalked by any owls yet, but a bobcat did take an unhealthy interest in us, or the poodle, not long ago. As Ed Abbey said, "it ain't wilderness unless there is something that can kill you and eat you." For a 12 pound poodle, it's a wild world out there.

Posted Mon, Dec 10, 2:22 p.m. Inappropriate

You are fortunate to have seen this bird.
I've seen/heard owls dozens of times in Discovery Park and they have always been the Barred Owl.
I have only seen Great Horned Owls out East.

Incidentally, I've seen coyotes a few times at that park. One particular sunny morning, I went by a woman walking a small dog on a leash while a coyote watched nearby seemingly licking his chops.

Another good reason to leash!

jeffro

Posted Mon, Dec 10, 9:49 p.m. Inappropriate


As those who write for the web know, some of the most interesting comments come as private emails from readers who either don't want to bother registering to post public Comments, or fear getting smacked with angry responses if they do. And so, in the tradition of The New Yorker's old "a friend writes" rubric, I'm passing along these thoughts from a correspondent whose authenticity I can unreservedly attest to; I've known her since high school.
"Next time you should add that dogs are not allowed on the beach, leashed or not. The only exceptions are designated areas such as the Sand Point off leash park on Lake WA. These laws are intended to preserve habitat and water quality. A few years ago I discussed enforcement with Seattle Animal Control, and they said they don't respond unless the dog is biting someone. If there are a lot of off leashers at Discovery Park, I report it to the ranger (if I can find one).

"As a side bar, my only recent dog attack was in Buffalo. A pit bull ON leash, lunged from his owner's hand and nicely bit my upper thigh. I didn't see it coming (I was faced opposite, bird watching). So the laws aren't perfect even if obeyed. I don't think breed bans will work, so I'm in favor of muzzle laws for dangerous breeds or bad offenders."

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