If a great horned owl smells, what does he smell like? Some have that specific odor I am thinking of, and some don’t. But if one of them smells, you know exactly what the smell is. If you don’t know the answer to this, you don’t know owls.
I know about great horned owls from first-hand experience. I had one for a captive for several months! At first, he had that strong odor I mention. I would like to say he was a pet, but he wasn’t. He was injured in a steel trap and I nursed him back to health. Ol’ Bill Stalder, my Grandpa Dablemont’s trapping partner, brought him to me one November day while I was at the pool hall.
Dad and I had been on a Piney river duck hunt and I was there to show the “front bench regulars” a mallard drake I had killed with only three shots. Since I had a pump gun then, it must have been just around my 14th birthday, and that owl with the mangled leg fascinated me. I name him Owlvin. Bill had him in a box with a towel over his eyes. I took him home and put him in the smokehouse before I took the towel off. He jumped up on one of the rafters and looked down at me as if trying to figure out if I was small enough to eat. And he sure enough did have that smell. He smelled like a skunk. Supposedly an owl doesn’t have a sense of smell amounting to much. Truthfully, their sense of hearing may be better than their eyesight. When a creature can see and hear like they can, who needs a sense of smell? That’s why, when a great horned owl glimpses a skunk rummaging around on the forest floor at night, he nails him and eats him. Maybe nothing else likes skunk meat, but a great horned owl does! And in the process, he gets sprayed.
If you doubt what I am saying, the next time you see an owl dead on the highway, carefully park your vehicle out of danger and get out and smell the dead owl. See if a good percentage of them don’t smell like a skunk? I am joking of course. If you really try that, and someone sees you, it might get around that you are about half crazy. But that has already been said about me. Dad told me I was crazy to be doctoring an owl.
But every day I left Owlvin the owl a squirrel or two or a bird or road-killed rabbit or possum and he would eat really good. Since his leg wasn’t broken it began to heal well. And he would swoop down and flop around in the water pan I left in the smoke house and splash all the water out. It was very educational, especially learning about the pellets of bone and hair he would expel because owls of all species are known to regurgitate everything that is undigestible.
Owls have a habit of roosting in the same place in the deep woods, so when you find one of those regurgitated pellets, you’ll likely find a lot of them. The study of owl pellets is a popular college ornithology project. But their diet varies according to the region in which they are found.
In a couple of weeks of smokehouse confinement, Owlvin, healed very well and I taught him to sit on my arm, on a long leather glove of course. With a tether on his leg I took him out to the edge of the woods and secured him on a post, hid myself well and began to call crows. When they came close enough to see Owlvin, there was one heck of an attack. Crows hate owls.
I would wait with my handmade sassafras bow and shoot at them overhead, so the arrow would come straight back to earth if I missed and could be found. In an hour, I finally lost all four arrows anyway and never hit a crow. But I did come awfully close.
Owlvin was indignant about it, and when I took him home, I paused at the door of the smokehouse and began to tell him what a pretty boy he was. I don’t know what he thought I was saying to him, but with a lightning strike he reached out and impaled my upper lip with his curved sharp beak. It went all the way through my lip and hurt like the dickens and bled like crazy. My eyes watered so bad I couldn’t see.
With that, Owlvin won his freedom. I tethered him to my bicycle handle bar and rode down to the river and watched him fly away, while my swollen lip throbbed. I yelled after him, “So long Owlvin, I hope someday you eat another skunk and get rabies.”
Outdoor note…Special wing-tip feathers do indeed make the flight of all owls completely noiseless, and none of them can build a nest because of that curved beak. Most owls nest in hollow trees sometimes in mid-winter. One species, short-eared owls’ nest on the ground.