My first owl encounter was a seminal moment, one of my first real connections with a wild creature. Hiking alone in Tollgate Canyon just outside of Park City, I had stopped to sit and think on a timeworn hump of rock at the edge of a small clearing among the aspens.
After nearly an hour accompanied by no more than my own stillness, I was caught off guard when a movement registered in my peripheral vision, and then a huge bird glided in noiselessly to perch on a limb only a few yards away. Even more surprising was a second movement almost directly above me. A glance upward revealed a silhouette in the crook of a dead tree just to my side. I realized it was a great horned owl. Owls cannot move their eyes within the sockets; they move their entire head to shift their field of vision. It was this silent turn of the head that drew my attention to the owl above.
Great horned owls are the most common owl species around Park City. Growing as large as two feet in length with a wing span from three to five feet, they are recognizable by distinctive ear tufts and bright yellow eyes. Like most owls, great horned owls are primarily nocturnal hunters, but during daylight they can often be seen roosting in aspen, scrub oak, or other deciduous trees.
Among the most efficient predators known, great horned owls prey on birds of all sizes and mammals as large as snowshoe hares. They have extremely keen
vision and hearing but a poor sense of smell, which explains why they are one of the few predators to prey on skunks. Great horned owls are solitary birds except during breeding season in late spring and early summer, and they are opportunistic nesters, often using abandoned hawk, crow, or even eagle nests. They are capable of a variety of calls, the most common being a series of five deep, resonant hoots. On a still night, their voices carry a mile or more.
Also common around Park City are barn owls, recognizable by their pale, heart-shaped faces and dark brown eyes. Barn owls prey primarily on mice, voles, and other rodents, and they call out in a raspy, hissing screech. Their affinity for roadside night hunting sometimes puts barn owls on a collision course with vehicular traffic—unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see dead barn owls along Summit County’s rural roads.
Because of their silence and stillness, owls often go unnoticed, even though they are frequently among us. Seeing owls around Park City during daylight hours is often simply a matter of looking for their distinctive silhouettes in trees, on fence posts, or on telephone poles. Owls rarely spook at the sight of people unless approached at very close range, and something about the way they stare back through huge unflinching eyes does indeed provide a point of contact with a wild creature at a level of intimacy that, for most of us, is rare.
Owls’ ability to see in the dark, along with their reclusive habits and deceptively silent flight, has given rise in many cultures to the belief that they possess supernatural powers. Some mythological traditions cast owls as holders of wisdom. In Native American culture, owls are nearly always associated with clairvoyance and darkness. Many tribes believe that seeing an owl is a bad omen. The Zuni consider possession of owl feathers to be a sign of witchcraft. The Hopi, while still associating owls with magic, place them in a more positive light: they consider owls teachers of night medicine and look on them as guides through dark times.