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Revenge of the wild: The owl and the terrier

A Great Horned Owl Credit: 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.



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