It was a last-minute decision to go back to see the two young great horned owl siblings. They had already fledged, and who knew whether they would still be together or not. It had been a long day and I was tired, but… you never knew whether something interesting might happen. And sure enough, that evening it did!
Suddenly, there was an adult owl standing on the branch in front of the owlets with a live garter snake! The young owlet looked excited. It took the snake, which writhed around, a bit tentatively. The adult watched for a while, and then and flew a bit lower down in the tree. Then shortly after that, flew away.
Great horned owls will eat mammals such as rabbits and occasionally even other raptors if the situation arises, as well as smaller prey such as rodents, frogs, and snakes. Their keen eyesight, paired with their ability to strike unsuspecting prey silently, means they can hunt snakes fairly easily.
The other owlet watched as her sibling moved the snake around in its beak, seemingly a bit unsure of what to do. The snake’s head dropped lower, and then a bit lower still. Finally, the owlet started swallowing the snake doubled up and was doing just fine. But then the snake’s head reared up with a split-second strike against the owlet’s eye and then bit the owlet in the neck. The bite didn’t seem to bother the owlet — after all, garter snakes are small and not poisonous and there were so many feathers in the way — so the owl kept swallowing. But… how do you keep swallowing something that’s got a firm grip on your neck?
For the next half hour, those of us who were witnessing this ordeal watched in fascination, as the owlet futilely kept trying to gulp down the remaining visible end of the snake, making no headway whatsoever. It pulled at the snake with its talons to no avail. His eyes got bloodshot from the effort, but the snake heroically clung onto his neck for dear life!
Finally, after what seemed like ages, the owlet regurgitated most of the snake, which let go of his neck, head now dangling below once again. The owlet once again started swallowing from around the snake’s mid-section, but the garter snake was evidently not feeling too well by this time and probably did not have the energy to repeat its former trick. So this time, the ending was what the owlet wanted, but not without that valiant little snake still trying one more time to bite… something, anything, even during the last few seconds of its view of the outside world.
The other owlet had been watching intently the whole time. Perhaps the next time they have the opportunity to eat a snake, these young owls will know to tackle it headfirst?
Photos and story by Judi Dressler. Judi’s image was selected for the cover image of the 2021 Colorao Outdoors Magazine Photography Issue. View more images from the 2021 Photography Issue.