The Owl Fight

Nature is violent.

I was reminded of this simple truth last November while elk-hunting in the Gallatin Mountains in Montana.

I arrived at the trailhead early in the morning, well before sunrise.  It was dark, cold, and snowing.  I took a final sip of my coffee, loaded my pack, put my rifle strap over my shoulder, and set off hiking.

The landscape, blanketed in snow, was quiet.  I was alone.  It was a morning I dream about in the middle of summer.

My plan was simple: hike the trail in the dark as far from the trailhead as possible, and then at first light go off trail and wander aimlessly in search of elk until my legs go on strike. 

That plan, or some slight variation of it, covers most of my hunting trips.

About three-quarters of a mile into the hike, a decent-sized owl flushed out of a tree immediately above me.  Naturally, it scared the shit out of me.  It didn’t fly far, however, and landed on the long bare branch of a tall pine next to the trail.

It was still dark.  I could only make out its silhouette.  I stopped hiking to watch it.  Bumping into an owl on a dark, snowy morning in the mountains is why I hunt.

I also have a deep fondness for owls, and a bizarre knack for bumping into them fairly regularly.  This owl, like all owls, moved its head in that funky, slightly eerie owl way.  Based on what I could see in the dark, I figured it was a great gray owl. 

Tired of my ogling, the owl departed, and I was free to continue hiking.  I hiked, and I hiked, and then I hiked some more.

I saw no elk.

Around midday, I was slowly hunting my way back to the truck.  My legs, like honest Parisians, had begun their protest.

The wind had picked up, as had the snow, and the combination was attacking my face.  I was ambling through a stand of young pines and Douglas firs when some nearby commotion caught my attention.

Off to my left, a mere fifteen yards away, I saw a large bird lying on the snow, its head down and wings outstretched.  It was a huge bird, clearly a raptor, and I wondered what the hell it was doing.  I stood motionless behind a skinny fir tree for concealment.

The splayed raptor was moving its head, but its massive wings stayed still, barely quivering.  I was becoming more curious by the second, and then it lifted its head.  With its head up, I looked into the fierce yellow eyes of a great horned owl, its pointy, tufted ears unmistakable.

And then, to my absolute and utter shock, another owl’s head looked up and peered out directly below the great horned’s head.  There were two owls, not one.  The great horned was lying on top of another owl, and, for a few moments, both of their heads were up, their eyes darting side to side, surveying the landscape.

The second owl was smaller and appeared to be a great gray owl.  I recalled my pre-dawn encounter by the trail, the location of which was less than a half-mile away. Could the great gray underneath the great horned be the same owl I met that morning?

Totally dumbfounded, I wondered whether the two owls were mating.  But it was November, and birds procreate in the spring.

Their heads were back down, and the great horned was smothering the great gray, which I could no longer see.  Astounded at was unfolding mere yards from me, I kept watching.

The great horned continued to move its head around, and then it looked up again.  But this time, the great gray’s head never came up.  It finally dawned on me: these owls were neither mating nor playing; the great horned had the great gray pinned down, and it was slowly killing it.

Stunned, I remained motionless behind the fir tree.  I was on their turf, in their world, and I never considered intervening to break up the fight.  I just stood there, awed by nature, grateful for such an intimate, intense encounter with wildness.

The great horned continued to work away at the great gray, which I still could not see.  The great horned also appeared to not yet have noticed my presence, which surprised me, but the wind and snow aided my concealment.

After another minute or two, the great horned stopped bobbing its head.  Still outstretched on the snow, it picked its head up and started looking around.  I stood as still as a statue, barely breathing.

But it had seen me.  I knew because it was staring at me, its piercing eyes locked on my position.  I wondered what it would do next.  I was uncomfortably close to it, and it was perched atop a fresh kill.

It jumped up and stood on the dead great gray – and continued staring at me.  It didn’t move a feather, and I felt like its eyes were burning a hole through my chest.

It then locked its talons in the great gray’s body and started to hop away with it.  It only went about seven or eight yards, and then it resumed its standing position atop the great gray and recommenced its intimidating stare at me.

At this point, I broke my statuesque stillness and began to impulsively smile.  It had been several minutes (though it felt like hours), and I couldn’t stay calm anymore.  Though part of me was melancholy about the loss of the great gray, the overall interaction was just too extraordinary, and death is a vital part of nature, something I try not to forget or anthropomorphize.

The great horned’s stare, meanwhile, had not relented, but then, without warning, it flushed and flew away.  All that remained was a dead great gray owl and a euphoric sense of gratitude in every fiber in my body.

I walked over and looked at the dead great gray.  I picked it up, held it in my bare hands, and inspected it.  There were no visible signs of trauma.  But then I noticed something odd: its eyes were missing.  I’m not sure how the great horned killed the great gray, but it pecked its eyes out in the process.

I snapped some photos and pulled a few of its feathers to preserve a tangible connection to this surreal encounter.  I then left the great gray where I found it and resumed my hike towards the truck.

I felt sublime, as such an intimate brush with wildness was something I’d never experienced.

I’ve had close encounters with grizzly bears, wolves, bison, rattlesnakes, alligators, sharks, and countless other critters, but this ordeal trumped everything.  For a few minutes, I was able to watch a wild owl defend its territory and fight for survival.  And unlike most wildlife encounters, the owls had no idea I was there, notwithstanding me being mere yards away.  I was in their world.

When I got home, I researched the Internet to learn more about owls, and I discovered that a great horned will sometimes kill a great gray that’s intruded upon its hunting grounds.  Clearly, that’s what happened that November morning in the Gallatins.

Several months later, that day is still burned in my memory.  And while that experience needs no larger meaning ascribed to it, I can’t help but think about the importance of preserving wild places.

With our ever-growing encroachment on the natural world, we need to protect – we need to fight for – places where a great horned owl can kill a great gray owl to defend its domain.  Where a grizzly can kill an elk calf for a spring meal.  Where a pack of wolves can kill a bison.  Where nature can be violent.

We need wildness.  

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