October is a very special month in Walla Walla County for many reasons. In the natural world this is the month when days get shorter and the air has a lively nip to it. This is a transition month when many wild plants slip into dormancy, when the last of the migrant song birds depart from the Lower Columbia Basin and fly south to warmer climates in Central and South America. It is also that month when many trees break into bright tangerines, oranges, yellows and reds, such as the sumacs, sweet gums and water birch. It is also that time of year when a very special group of native raptors become very vocal and can be heard throughout Walla Walla County. These are the owls. There are eleven species of owls that have been seen within the borders of this great county.
So, today I will share with you about the most powerful of these birds of prey that lives all over Walla Walla County. This is the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). This 22 inch long owl has a wing span of 45 inches and weighs in right at about three pounds. This big predator is found from the Arctic tree line south across all of North America on through Central America and right across all of South America down into Terra Del Fuego. Yet this stately bird is not migratory and seldom wonders more than a few dozen miles from its natal site. It is a powerful flier and predator. This is a crepuscular hunter which means that Great Horned Owls do most of their hunting at the leading edge of the night and again just before the arrival of the new day and first light.
Great Horned Owl
This owl has large “ear tufts” that have nothing to do with hearing, but rather are part of the birds camouflage to make it look like a broken branch.
Over thousands of years man has attached all kinds of beliefs and omens to these birds. Some consider them as messengers from the past and others the future, still others as omens of evil, while others as an emblem of wisdom and intelligence. Throughout its range the Great Horned Owl is, above all, respected for its ability as a hunter and its powerful eye sight is renowned. Others see them as elegant, beautiful creatures that maintain necessary population balances within the systems in which they live. These big owls do not build their own nests and are entirely dependent on other birds for nest platforms on which to lay their four eggs. Here, in Walla Walla County, they depend on Red-tailed Hawks, crows, Black-billed Magpies and ravens for nests.
None of the arboreal owl species here in this county build their own nests and are dependent on other nest builders. The Great Horned Owl is a spectacular bird and performs some very important functions in this county. Two of these are their ability to hunt and take out skunks and keep control on the cottontail rabbit population. They are able to take skunks as prey because this bird has no olfactory and really do not care if they get sprayed in the process of catching a skunk. These owls can take many species of animals as prey such as snakes, opossums’, wild turkeys, Red-tailed Hawks, stray house cats to name a few. So if you want to see a Great Horned Owl drive the back roads 30 min after sundown around Waitsburg, Dixie, Prescott and Walla Walla. Please remember that all owls are wild and can cause serious injury if picked up or disturbed.
Also, remember that it is best to just observe these spectacular birds. These owls bring charm and wonder to this county. All owls and hawks are protected by Federal and State Law. So get out there and enjoy them. They do so much good for farmers and landowners by controlling insect and rodent numbers.
Another owl species is the Northern Pygmy Owl that also becomes very vocal during October. The reason that many species of owls start speaking up this month is due to “Photo Period” or length of day light. The Northern Pygmy Owl is a “diurnal” hunter, which means it is a day light hunter. It hunts for voles, mice, small birds, crickets, grasshoppers and small amphibians. This is a fierce predator that is not afraid of very much. It is a small owl that is 6.75 inches long and has a wing span of 12 inches. It has tiny tufts that fold down above and over each bright yellow eye. These tufts are raised when the bird is upset.
This small owl is common in the foothills of the Blue Mountains and starting in October these birds start moving down slope into the Walla Walla Valley to hunt the winter away. They are cavity nesters and are dependent on flickers for their cavities they excavate. Watch the tops of trees and woody shrubs as you drive along roads like Coppei Creek, Mill Creek, Mud Creek or Lewis Peak. Good luck in your search for these outstanding little owls. I often say that if this owl species were as large as a goose, you and I would be running for cover.