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Running the gauntlet: The intersection of owls, cars and evolution 

CASUALTIES to nature and man.Every day you see them dead on the highway, animals that tried to run the gauntlet and lost - cats, dogs,

click to enlarge CASUALTIES to nature and man.
  • CASUALTIES to nature and man.
CASUALTIES to nature and man.Every day you see them dead on the highway, animals that tried to run the gauntlet and lost - cats, dogs, squirrels, mice, mule deer, elk, pronghorn, hawks, owls, eagles, and other forms of life, both domestic and wild.

There isn't much anyone can do about it either; it is the price all Life pays for the "Advance of Civilization." Even at more than $4 a gallon for fuel, we continue to drive our motor vehicles on our wonderful, paved roads. We have to. Oh sure, I suppose we could slow down a little, but that's not the American Lifestyle. We are a "Now!" "Get it Done!" generation; driving slower just doesn't fit into our way of life.

The above photo of the dead owl and gopher demonstrates a situation on our highway that is almost impossible to avoid. Great horned owls are birds of the night. That owl would have spent the day snoozing in the shade of a nice, cool juniper; when the sun dropped below the snow-capped peaks of the Cascades he'd wake up, open those magnificent, huge eyes and look for food. First things first.

The great horned owl is without a doubt, the finest killer-of-the-night that Nature has devised. They have eyes capable of seeing in almost complete darkness, with binocular vision that gives them an uncanny sense of depth. From a quarter mile away, they can hear the whisper of moving soil as a pocket gopher slowly pushes it away from its burrow. Great horned owls rarely miss what they are after.

But, like our beautiful and daring gray squirrels, owls haven't a lick of sense about the threat from motor vehicles.

While a gray squirrel may try to avoid a speeding vehicle, they - like owls - do not, and probably cannot comprehend that they are about to die unless they get out of the way of that approaching machine. "Evolution" takes a lot of time...

The male great horned owl above had just caught that young pocket gopher you see lying there on the pavement. It swooped down on silent wings, grasped the gopher in its powerful talons and lifted it out of the nearby alfalfa field.

Owls have been doing that ever since they left the dinosaurs behind, and owls and gophers depend on each other. Owls keep gophers from overrunning their food supply, and gophers keep owls from going hungry. But not this time... Everybody loses now.

The hay farmer no longer has free rodent control, and the gophers are now free to die from disease as they overpopulate their habitat. Of course, the hay farmer may have a different idea...

However, things are going to be tough for that owl's mate. She is a widow, which also makes her a "working mother" and chief breadwinner for her half-grown offspring. Nestling owls grow so fast you can almost watch it happen; they go from egg to fledgling in 12 weeks. To do that requires prodigious amounts of food, mostly rodents.

The area this pair of owls preferred hunting was the big irrigation pivots along Highway 20 near Fryrear Rd., between Bend and Sisters. I have a hunch that the unfortunate victim of our grand technology is the same guy that got off with one of my chickens last year. The same one I used to see at sundown and dawn watching the hay fields from his perch on top of the power poles along the highway.

He had been a very lucky owl for several years, swooping into the hay field to capture gophers and flying across the highway to his nest somewhere to the west of the roadway. He managed to escape electrocution and motor vehicles for a long time.

However, when you start running the gauntlet every night it's just a matter of mathematics and fate before a car or truck smacks you. It is impossible for the average motorist to see a great horned owl coming at him or her in the dark. The owl is doing around 20 mph, and the motor vehicle is speeding along at 60 mph or better. In the blink of an eye it's over; owl and gopher are thrown into the air and killed by the impact and life for the owl's mate takes a new turn. She will be busy all night long making trip-after-trip to the irrigated fields to capture gophers and other rodents.

If she can avoid the speeding cars and trucks, she may just pull it off. Her Little Ones may grow and become Big Ones and leave the nest healthy and hardy rodent-eaters. But she'll have to run the gauntlet every night to get the job done.

More power to her.


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