The mature bald eagle was unimpressed.
It had flown up from Crow Creek and unexpectedly found itself in the center of a middle-school science experiment. My youngest son Connor and his partner Gus were launching rockets and gathering data comparing the heights they could achieve. The flight of the eagle and the descent of their latest rocket never came close to converging, but stranger things have happened.
The wind drifted the rocket and its parachute across the hay field and into our creek bottom. The boys ran off to retrieve it. Upon their return, Connor ran back breathless and informed me that a pair of great horned owls was lying dead in the snow. One bird would have been a surprise, but two dead owls gave me concern.
Owls and all other raptors are federally protected. There are severe penalties and fines awaiting those who intentionally or even accidentally kill them and no private individuals are allowed to possess their remains without federal permit.
The birds were frozen in a most unusual embrace. January is the breeding season and these two birds had locked talons in an apparent aerial combat.
I have always been enamored with owls. In my earliest memories and before they were protected, my youthful uncles would occasionally trap a tiny burrowing owl in their pursuit of prairie dogs. They would bring it home and hand feed the birds grasshoppers to tame them. I watched them for hours. I could not imagine a more engaging pet than an owl. The Harry Potter frenzy has returned owls into the interest arena of youth and the young boys were truly amazed at the beautiful of an owl even in death.
In the predatory pyramid of the sky, great horned owls would hold a similar position to black bears here on the ground. While other predators such as falcons focus on birds, owls, like black bears, will eat anything small enough to fit down their enormous mouths. In truly mystifying fashion, owls can swallow whole birds and animals that appear to nearly equal them in size. I shared a video with several high school classes of an owl swallowing a rabbit whole. No human gluttony champion could compete with an owl. The students were amazed and a bit horrified.
The owls that had died were locked as securely, one to the other, as any two antlered bucks. The smaller of the two had wrapped its talons around one leg of the larger bird and then sunk its remaining talons, each as long as a child’s finger, into its adversary’s soft belly. In the aerial tumble that followed as they fell from the sky, the bird that had the upper hand must have struck its head against a tree with such tremendous force that it was killed. In one of those unfortunate twists of fate, the victim could not remove itself from the grasp of the dead bird and must have frozen there in the snow. Great horned owls have wingspans of up to five feet and resemble nothing so much as flying cats in size and beauty. These two dead birds were immaculate in their winter plumage. I couldn’t imagine that such beauty should be left to decompose in the snow when so many school children might benefit from such a unique tragedy.
I called my local warden, Mike Apland, and then the states regional wildlife manager John Kanta. John in turn transferred me up the federal branches until I finally contacted Linda Downey. Everyone I spoke to assured me that it was a difficult process to acquire the permits, but in the end, it just came down to talking to the right person. Linda is the Migratory Bird Permit Specialist for our region. While individuals can’t own owls, schools can, for scientific purposes. Sometime in the future, the owls will find a home in Spearfish High School’s science department and hopefully generations of Harry Potter fans will be as awed by their magnificence as am I.