The bald eagle is our national symbol, and many people think of eagles as the top predator of the sky. However, there is a stronger bird that often takes on (and trounces) the eagle – and that bird is the great horned owl.
Both the eagle and the great horned owl are raptors – birds of prey that are distinguished by their curved beaks, powerful talons, keen eyesight, and carnivorous diet.
When birds of prey kill or fight, they use their talons – and the great horned owl has an advantage when it comes to talons. The great horned owl can apply 500 pounds of pressure per square inch with its talons – while the eagle can manage about 300 pounds of pressure.
So why would these two top predators fight? It’s because of the eagle’s enviable real estate, says Beth Lott, raptor clinic technician/volunteer coordinator for the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Florida.
“Great horns rarely make their own nests. They tend to steal other birds’ nests,” explained Lott. “If they can get eagles’ [nests], it’s like the penthouse. So they like eagles’ nests, and sometimes they get into fights with the eagles over the nests because they roughly nest around the same time.”
Migratory eagles return to Florida around October, although there are some “early birds,” says Lott. Eagles are “nest faithful,” and bonded pairs return to the same nest year after year. Eagles’ nests are usually high up and roomy and can weigh as much as six tons.
“Slowly, through October and November, [they’re] establishing their territory again,” said Lott. Eagles not only have to deal with nest-stealing owls, they also have to fend off other eagles, she said.
In fact, treating injured raptors (eagles, owls, falcons, ospreys, kites, and more) is one of the main missions of the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey. Since its opening in 1979, the center has treated and released back to the wild more than 17,000 birds. Some of the injuries they see are natural – results of skirmishes between birds like eagles and great horned owls or from baby birds falling out of nests. But more of them are caused by human factors, says Lott.
With eagle season right around the corner, however, the center is likely to see some injuries resulting from territorial skirmishes, and some of these will be between eagles and great horned owls.
“The great horned owls are known as the tigers of the sky. They’re one of the top predators of North America,” said Lot. “Sometimes the great horns win and sometimes the eagles win… but [the owls] are stronger.”
Want to know how you can help the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey? Check out this page on how to donate your time, money, or needed supplies: http://fl.audubon.org/support-0.