An Owl Before Dawn

By Larry Dablemont, Contributing Columnist
Posted 3/30/22

There is no more efficient predator than a great horned owl. Silent and deadly, he can eat whatever he wants, up to and including a roosting wild turkey. Their flight is completely silent, and they …

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An Owl Before Dawn


There is no more efficient predator than a great horned owl. Silent and deadly, he can eat whatever he wants, up to and including a roosting wild turkey. Their flight is completely silent, and they occasionally break the neck of roosting turkeys in the darkness before the dawn. But that does not happen often if there are plenty of rabbits and small ground mammals to feed upon. 

Did you know that one of a great horned owl’s regular prey is skunks? For some reason, the scent of a skunk is something that doesn’t bother an owl. When the moon was bright, I watched rabbits playing around my place, in the pre-mating season antics which include games like jumping over each other and kicking their heels up as if they had never heard of a great horned owl. 

Certainly the semi-civilized atmosphere around my home, and the presence of my Labradors, eliminated the threat of foxes and coyotes, which stay down in the woods behind the pond. So this became a sort of haven for cottontails, especially with all the brush piles I have here on Lightnin’ Ridge.

Of course, I would probably opt for not having one house mouse or Norway rat in the whole Ozarks, but I like the idea of some ground mammals like the woodrat and harvest mice and white-foot mice. And I’d lot rather have cottontails and quail than hardly anything I can think of. My one covey seems to not expand much. If I could do it, if God gave me the power of eliminating some of his creation, I would get rid of only a few things beside the house mouse, and that would be ticks, brown-recluse spiders, starlings, copperheads and rattlesnakes, carp, gar, armadillos and maybe cormorants. 

But even though I would do it, I would feel guilty about it. It seems selfish to try to create a perfect world up here on my ridge-top when so many people have to live in suburbs and can’t do a thing about it. I sincerely suspect that the thing that would make this old world work better is the elimination of about half the people who are overcrowding it, and what worries me about that is, what if I am one of the half which should be eliminated?

My grandfather, who always lived out in the woods or on the river somewhere, sawed the top out of medium sized trees up about twenty feet from the ground, to create a flat landing place for the great horned owl, and then would set a steel trap there, and bait it with a wood rat or small squirrel. He was paid a small bounty at the county courthouse for the feet of owls, but he also saw no good in them, and believed in maintaining them only in strong enough numbers so that they survived along the river miles from where he kept a few chickens. 

Grandpa liked to eat eggs and the owls liked to eat chickens, and he was much more inclined to believe in the survival of things he liked to eat, like rabbits, quail and ducks, than things he didn’t eat. There were so fewer men back then than there are today. Grandpa wasn’t so far removed from a time when a man’s greatest concern wasn’t so much economics and gas prices, but what he was going to eat and perhaps what might be about to eat him. Who could believe we would ever make a great and drastic impact on the land, and perhaps endanger our own existence in time?

When I was 15 years old, Grandpa and I floated a particular Ozark river in a wooden johnboat he built, and caught some nice fish from it. Today that stream is completely and totally dry. If I mention it on occasion when I speak to a live audience somewhere it quickly comes to me they would rather I didn’t. So more often, I talk about the funny stories that came from the old men in the pool hall back in that time. 

I figured out long ago that even if you know something, it isn’t always wise to try to explain it to anyone. That’s true of things like the spreading of billions of gallons of chemicals, all over the Ozarks. Nothing will stop it, and what is going to come from it is going to come from it, and that’s that. 

Maybe God himself knows this, and is just watching and waiting, ready to reclaim, rebirth and regrow the perfect earth he created, sometime in the future. I guess it follows then, that the best thing to do is the best we can, to try to get our grandkids someplace where there are songbirds still singing and the water still has some crawdads and kingfishers and there are more trees than there are stumps. But, not many of the grandkids in the world today care about those things. They are more interested I new boxes! The latest computers and smart phones. To each his own I guess. More kids today will choose drugs than old fashioned things like clean water and forests.

If you wonder how any of this has anything to do with that owl, I can’t explain it. I just thought about some of those things while I was listening to him one night, mice and rabbits and water. It was awfully quiet and peaceful up here on Lightnin’ Ridge, with the moon so bright it was casting shadows on my lawn as it sunk toward the west well before dawn. And it was so still. That old owl is likely sitting in a hollow tree somewhere right now, getting some sleep, and maybe a little bit hungry because there aren’t enough mice and rabbits around my place. Some of that may be his own darn fault. But at least he has no steel traps to contend with now. 

Read what I write and see what I photograph each week on E-mail me at or write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613


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