Walking through a Jefferson County ranch one summer day, I inadvertently flushed a great horned owl. Before I could clear out so she could return to her roost, two ravens and a golden eagle swooped in from above. The eagle didn’t think much of the owl's attempt to look large and took her to the ground.
I wouldn’t normally intervene, but feeling guilt about flushing the owl in daylight, I ran over to break up the fight. Wings flapped furiously above prairie grasses. The mobbing ravens flew off on my arrival, but the eagle couldn’t get airborne with the owl and didn’t seem willing to give her up even after my two friends showed up. After a couple vain attempts to fly, Eagle stopped trying. From then on both birds—Eagle face down, wings spread, Owl face up under and behind Eagle—appeared resigned to their fate and moved only their eyes.
We could not believe Eagle was so unafraid of us shouting and jumping that it wouldn’t let Owl go, but after much puzzling and probing we realized Eagle’s finger-sized talons were empty. Owl wouldn’t let Eagle go! Or perhaps she couldn’t, for her talons were all sunk deep in Eagle’s upper thighs.
It's hard not to anthropomorphize in a situation like this. It was easy to see how owls gained their reputation for wisdom, as Owl’s eyes calmly followed our every movement. Eagle, on the other hand, looked straight forward with an intensity that I could only translate as a constant stream of unprintable words. F*@#! F*@#! Stuck! F*@#! The intensity never let up; maybe that’s just how eagle eyes look. All three humans got the distinct impression that Owl and Eagle were indifferent to our meddling, as if we were irrelevant spectators to an age-old war.
Owl had two clean puncture wounds in her chest, at least two we could see. She eventually began to gasp for air, tilted back to get more, drooped her eyelids, and expired. Posthumously, her talons only seemed to tighten their death grip. I’m sure Eagle would have starved to death or suffered Prometheus’s revenge at the beaks of the ravens if we didn’t pry Owl’s talons out of Eagle’s thighs.
Eagle looked fine and mighty again flying off despite serious wounds, including perhaps to his pride, having been fought to a draw by an owl at most a third his size.
Owl had chicks in her nest. Perhaps her death grip was to save them from Eagle. The male owl should have continued to feed and raise them, but after days without a sign of his attendance, the Montana Raptor Conservation Center collected the owl chicks for release to another nest.
The owl and the eagle help me explain to myself, if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else, why I hunt, why I walk the land, why I am committed to conservation. However you get to an appreciation for conservation, I hope you will appreciate one more perspective on a complicated world.
Mike Leahy is Rocky Mountain Region Director for Defenders of Wildlife.