Shaver’s Creek: Look into an owl’s world

ROCK SPRINGS, Pa. – Do you see that white light? Blink. Blink. Blink.
It isn’t an emergency strobe light but it is a warning. A warning from a great horned owl.
A white tuft of feathers under her chin flashes up and down, up and down as the owl pants.
“Warning, warning,” she’s saying. “I’m here, don’t come any closer.”
This is just one of the lessons spectators flocked to hear during a birds of prey talk at Ag Progress Days in Rock Springs, Pa., Aug. 18-19.
‘Horned’ owl. With a 4 1/2 -pound owl perched on her wrist, Shaver’s Creek intern Debbie Saylor explained how two triangles on the bird’s head only look like horns. They’re really just feathers, she said, but the resemblance is how the bird got its name.
And while the owl’s gaping golden eyes bored into everyone who made a movement, Saylor said those eyes are three times the size of the bird’s brain.
If the same proportion was true in humans, their eyes would be the size of softballs, she said.
Shaver’s Creek. This great horned owl lives at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in Petersburg, Pa.
The animals at the center, including 24 birds, turtles, snakes and toads, were injured and could not be rehabilitated enough to live in the wild again.
Instead, they became an opportunity for education, said Jennifer Brackbill, assistant director of the center’s raptor center.
The center concentrates on outreach programs and travels to more than 100 sites each year with the animals, she said.
Hunting. Great Horned Owl III, as this particular bird is called, came to the center about a year and a half ago.
Her left wing was injured, possibly in a car accident. Now it hangs lower than the other wing and doesn’t have the full 55-inch wingspan needed to survive in the wild.
Great Horned Owl III, like the other owls in her species, can exert a stronger grip with her talons than an Olympic gymnast on the rings, Brackbill said.
This strength is how the owl squeezes its prey to death.
After the owl kills its prey, it stands on it and uses its beak to take apart the animal. An extra cutting edge on the middle front talon helps the owl tear its prey.
Owls also have two rear-facing “hooks” on their tongues to help move food to the back of their throats. This makes it possible for owls to swallow mice whole, Brackbill said.
Sometimes owls only eat their prey’s head because that is where there is the most energy, she said. And since owls don’t have a good sense of smell, they even eat animals like skunks.
Great horned owls are the largest and strongest owl in Pennsylvania and are commonly found across both Pennsylvania and Ohio, Brackbill said.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at


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