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  • Writer's pictureJ. Darris Mitchell

Great Horned Owl

Bird of the Week: 02/27/2023

Great Horned Owl

A few weeks ago, Austin was hit hard by an ice storm. It was dubbed the ‘oakpocalypse’ by someone cleverer than I because the city’s precious live oaks were hit hardest. They’re unusual for an oak, in that they don’t lose their leaves. So when the freezing precipitation started to fall, it stuck not only to their branches, but to their thousands of dark green leaves. Oaks are strong, but water is heavy, and it seemed that nearly every oak in town suffered dismemberment.

Nowhere was this clearer than in Northwest Austin. I took Xander to a spring migratory hotspot known as Mills Pond, and was shocked to see just how many trees in the park and neighborhood had lost a branch. Weeks after the storm, there were still teams of people hauling branches towards trucks towing implements that could turn all this dead wood into mulch.

Xander and I had not expected such destruction, but we found it fascinating all the same. It was like parts of the forest had been peeled away. Before, branches and twigs might have blocked our view, but now we could see deeper into tangles that were—until spring anyway—exposed to the world.

The birds did not seem to mind the destruction, and if they did, they certainly knew better than to sit and sulk. Woodpeckers industriously went about hollowing out holes, blue jays gathered nuts, and mockingbirds incessantly called from branches that—for once—were not the same branches that they had called from the last season.

I was particularly curious about some of the longtime residents, a pair of great horned owls that often raise owlets in the park.

There’s an old halfdead cottonwood tree tucked into the back of one of the tangles at the park where owlets can be seen in spring, looking out at the world while their parents nap or bring them snacks.

But alas, there were no owlets in the nest today. Before, the nest had been a well hidden secret, but now it felt open and exposed.

Fortunately, the owl didn’t seem to mind.

I spotted it a few branches over, sitting on a branch and watching the world go by beneath it. This majestic bird, with its awesome feather tufts that make it look like some sort of transformed wizard, did not seem bothered by the damage that storm had caused. What he looked bothered by were the blue jays that were pestering him as he tried to enjoy his morning.

Maybe they had the right of it. Maybe they knew that with the canopy being what it was, the owls would have an easier time catching their young in the spring. Or maybe they felt like they finally had an advantage over this owl now that its nest was exposed, and they could finally drive it out.

I can’t say, but Xander and I marveled at how these birds tried to bully away a predator more then three times their size, and how the owl didn’t seem to care.

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