There are no such things as ghosts, I told myself as I walked down the dirt road. It was 4:30 a.m. The night before, we had been telling real ghost stories. Sheila said that she had encountered the “polo player” while staying in this dorm. Hear the story. The partiers had run out of booze, so the polo player volunteered to run over to the servant’s quarters, a.k.a the dorm. He was drunk, but off he raced anyway. He never knew what hit him when his horse ran under that big live oak limb. He still makes that run every night.
My assignment was to go out and find the owls nesting on the south end of the island. That brings me to walking down this dirt road in the pitch-black night, alone. Everyone else was going north on the island. I was walking down the same road, past the ruins of the once-stately house. The trees appeared to be looming over the path. Just before I reached the woods, a dark shadow silently winged by me. I heard a scream. I jumped and looked up. It was a Great Horned Owl flying in to feed its chick. That was when I learned that baby Great Horned Owls could make sounds like a woman screaming. After I recovered my senses, I laughed.
Great Horned Owls are big birds. Bald Eagles will tell you the Great Horned Owls are dangerous birds. Both Great Horned Owls and Bald Eagles are setting up nesting sites in October. When I had the privilege of monitoring a pair of nesting Bald Eagles, I watched them guard their seven-year-old nest against a pair of Great Horned Owls who were eye-balling that nest for their own. The eagles were never far away. Every evening in October the owls would hoot. The eagles would scream and land on their nest. The owls moved into an Osprey’s nest down the island. One thing I learned about these owls is they are not picky about where they nest. Bald Eagles are. On the Georgia Coast, eagles nest in tall pine trees; they use the crowns of pines as an umbrella.
Great Horned Owls are top-of-the-line predators. Small or large prey, it does not matter to them. Their main priorities are feeding their hungry, demanding chicks. Among their favorite foods are rodents, frog, birds, and mammals. Here is a hint if you want to see one of these owls, they often hunt along the Jekyll Island Causeway in the evening. Just look for the large dark shapes on the telephone poles as the sun is setting.
Listen to the crows that could be a clue that a Great Horned Owl is nearby. Crows are afraid that the owl may eat them, so they mob them. These owls have strong talons (feet). I was asked to band a Great Horned Owl back when I was starting to band birds. What I learned is those big owls have a solid grip. I began to put the band on when the owl clamped down on my hand and dug into me. It hurt. It didn’t let go until I let go — Owl one. Me zero. I did get the band on that bird, but I never want to do that again, I can tell you that. That grip can easily sever the spine of its prey.
Since Great Horned Owls are night hunters, they have incredible eyesight. They have more rods and cones in their eyes than we do. These rods and cones help the bird to see a wide range of colors. If we see a rainbow of seven colors, these owls can see colors in between those colors, as well as infrared light. They can see their prey glow in the dark. No, I do not believe in ghosts. Well maybe, I do believe in Great Horned Owls. They can make me think there are ghosts, but just for a moment.
Don’t let the owls scare you.
Meet our cover girl: Suzy Q
This exquisite Eurasian Eagle Owl named Suzy Q is one of the resident raptors at Georgia Southern’s Center for Wildlife Education and the Lamar Q Ball Jr. Raptor Center in Statesboro..
Scott Courdin, curator of center, says that, despite her exotic breed, she has called Georgia home almost all of her life.
“Due to rules and regulations, you can’t import wild birds. So a lot of the non-native birds are bred in captivity. She was bred in a facility in New York,” he said.
“We’ve had Suzy since she was about three weeks old. We got her back in 2004. She’s been hand-raised. We use her in almost all of our educational programs, as well as our flight show. These owls can live for 30 or 40 years in captivity.”
Suzy’s ancestors hailed from Europe, Russia, and Asia, and were similar to our own Great Horned Owl.
“They are relatives but the horned owls are smaller and their eye color is different,” Courdin said.
Suzy’s breed has some fascinating characteristics. An apex predator, Courdin says that, in the wild, she could eat just about anything she desired.
“They are the largest owls in the world. The Great Grey Owl is taller but these have more mass,” he said.
“She has about 800 lbs of pressure in her feet so she is capable of catching and killing about anything she wants. They’ve been known to eat small deer and animals larger than they are because they are so powerful.”
Suzy’s hunting skills have been perfected by nature. She can move silently thanks to her feather make-up. And this nocturnal predator doesn’t even need the light of the moon to make a kill.
“They have great eye sight. They don’t need artificial light to see, just a few stars. They also have some of the best hearing of any animal in the world,” he said. “When they attack, the prey never hears them coming.”
Courdin enjoys sharing these fun facts about Suzy with members of the public who visit the center. The Raptor Center also takes their show on the road, attending festivals and events around the state.
Each year, staff and birds visit CoastFest in Brunswick. The ecological education fair will return this year from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 5 at Mary Ross Waterfront Park in downtown Brunswick.
Suzy has made an appearance there before and it’s likely she will return to share her grace and strength with audiences this year.
“She’s a crowd favorite because she is so large. People love seeing her,” Courdin said.