One-Eyed Sentinel of Aberdeen—A 1970’s Saga

GHOwl

Perched on a railing four stories up, the two Great Horned Owls appear from the street below as tiny, feathered statuettes, though in reality they approached two feet in height with a wingspan of up to five feet. For almost four years, with the exception of about a month each summer, this pair of owls has kept their vigil in the Aberdeen, South Dakota, Brown County Courthouse tower, only a few yards away from the great multifaceted clocks. Chimes boom out on the hour, but these sounds so foreign to nature appear to have had little effect on these birds of prey.

The female, with her blind right eye colored an opaque yellow, has laid a total of nine eggs in the past three seasons. In the early spring of 1976, she initially laid two white eggs which froze–perhaps due to wind chill temperatures well above minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Instinctively striving for a successful mating, she laid an additional three eggs which were subsequently incubated about 30 days before hatching three young. Due to unknown factor(s), all three died shortly afterwards and their remains vanished.

The next year, the female laid two eggs that hatched in a month. As the young matured, the white feathers of the two young were easily visible from the ground below. Twice, these two partially fell, partially glided to the earth below but were returned to the tower by concerned county workers. The young disappeared a few days later after learning to fly and were not been seen again.

A sizeable population of pigeons have made the courthouse tower their home for many years. Some years previously, tons of accumulated pigeon droppings and debris crashed down into the inner corridor far below causing structural damage to the building. So, as a result, prior to the owl’s presence, Brown County officials regularly paid up to $200 per month for cleaning and removal of pigeon droppings. In fact, after the pair first moved into the tower, country officials were so desirous of insuring their permanent residence, they provided raw flesh as food. The birds not only refused to eat it, but they also left the tower briefly. Subsequent to the residential occupation by the pair of Great Horned Owls, the cleanup costs have been cut by 90 per cent.

Pigeons nesting further up in the courthouse dome of the bell tower offered a convenient and ready source of food. The owls, with their sharp, grasping claws and razor-like tearing bills are uniquely equipped to capture and kill unsuspecting prey.

The term “Tiger of the Air” has been aptly applied to this courageous, powerful and bloodthirsty big bird of prey. Several times in the early predawn hours, one of the owls has been observed dive-bombing a pigeon in flight. The immediate result was a great flurry of feathers; then the hapless victim, grasped by vice-like claws in midair was carried back to the tower roost for a tasty meal.

The author remembers a wintertime personal experience with a Great Horned Owl about this time only a few miles away. I had set a number of traps with the intent of capturing red foxes for their pelts which were bringing $60 at the time. Following standard fox trapping protocol, I had carefully de-scented traps and carefully set two of them near each other in a field not far from a small pond. The double springed traps consisted of a spring on one side attached to jaws in the middle with an attached spring on the other side. I remember when checking the traps a day or so later, I found a dead jackrabbit in one of the traps and a very much alive Great Horned Owl in the other. I had no quarrel with the owl and set about to release it as harmlessly and efficiently as possible. However, due to the nature of the double springed traps which required simultaneous compression of each on each side, I had a problem. For, as I sought to release the spring with one hand on each side of the trap, the owl would attack me with wings and bill–so I had to use one hand and arm to shield myself from the owl’s attacks, which precluded compression of both sides of the trap at the same time with both my hands. After a few futile efforts to open the trap with two hands, I finally was able to use my knee to compress one spring at the same time as with the other, all the while fending off the owl’s attacks with my free arm. This done, the jaws still refused to open to release the bird, so it took a few more tries before finally coaxing the them to open by jarring the trap back and forth. Finally, the jaws opened and released the big bird–which immediately flew off. The scenario that resulted in the two trapped animals probably began when the rabbit was trapped and while flailing around trying to escape, the cruising Great Horned Owl had spied the bunny and deemed it an easy meal. However, in seeking to secure it, the owl had itself had become caught in the other trap.

Subsequently, the owl had killed the rabbit, but remained trapped itself. It is possible this was one of the Tower owls, but there is no proof one way or the other.

Postscript:

Owls are nocturnal; that is, they are most active during the night time. Their large disc-like eyes are capable of detecting the slightest movement in limited night light. Their wings are feathered especially to facilitate silent flight—the element of surprise to unsuspecting prey. Their diet is diverse, mainly dependent upon kinds and numbers of prey animals available. A variety of nocturnal (sometimes diurnal) animals including skunks and jackrabbits, are common owl cuisine; however, only captured living creatures are eaten, never prey already dead such as do eagles and vultures and other avian flesh eaters. Great Horned Owls, with peculiar feathery tufts at the sides of their heads which resemble horns from a distance, are among the largest of all owls and are said by some naturalists to be the most savage birds of prey. They are common throughout North America, most generally living in forested and brushy areas, canyons, cliffs, and deserts. A peculiarity of owls is that their eggs (usually two) are laid at intervals so that there may be a maturing fledgling hatched well in advance of other unhatched egg(s).