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The Last Thing the Squirrel Saw

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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We have to assume it was a squirrel, but we know how it died. It died squirming and convulsing in the talons of an owl, locked in by the bone ratchets the owl shares with other raptors. Based on what was left behind, we also know that the attacker was likely a Great Horned Owl or a Northern Hawk Owl with a wingspan between 86 and 87 centimeters. All of this we can glean from a striking impression of a deadly strike.

The Wingprint

The Wingprint

There is perhaps no evidence of a kill more beautiful than these wing-prints left in the frigid Timiskaming, Ontario snow. Like throwing flour on the invisible man, the snow lets us see the tracks of an invisible predator—invisible at least to the squirrel.

With hearing good enough to sense rodents and other prey inches under the snow, owls feed by plunging their talons deeply through the drifts and into their prey. In the summer, the last thing many small mammals see is the owl. In the winter, strategies change, and many owls supplement their mammalian meat with that of small ground-dwelling birds like grouse. No matter the food, the killing itself isn’t pretty. Hawk owls in particular eviscerate small mammals before eating their heads and organs, thereafter caching the remains.

An owl can triangulate a scurrying vole better than you or I ever could, but the kill is not always so graceful. The hole at this kill site is likely enlarged by the repeated digging that is necessary to finally pierce a vole or grouse.

Often in science, we are unfortunately relegated to tangential, rather than direct, observation. To test the most obtuse “multiple universe” theories, for example, we might be able to look for boundaries where universes affect each other, but never the universes themselves. We have never seen a single electron, but stipulate its existence because of how atoms interact and how chemical reactions progress. Likewise, we never saw this owl swoop from the sky to puncture a helpless squirrel, but the wing-prints tell the story, a story about survival. The owl’s wingtips etched a testament to this unseen battle in the Canadian snow.

Sitting happily atop the food chain, we are oblivious to the intricacies of animal survival until our attention focuses on it. It takes something striking to raise the minutia of daily subsistence to conscious wonderment. Sometimes it takes an impression of feathers, frozen, somber. It was the last thing the squirrel ever saw.

Image: Gavin Murphy

Kyle Hill About the Author: Kyle Hill is a freelance science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 17 Comments

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  1. 1. beakgeek 11:28 am 01/28/2013

    More than likely it was a Red-backed Vole (Myodes gapperi) that met its demise, not a squirrel.

    They are the primary prey items of Northern Hawk-Owl in that area.

    Link to this
  2. 2. SuperString 1:04 pm 01/28/2013

    Beakgeek; you seem knowledgeable on this subject. We live in southern Missouri and a Great Horned or some other very large (wingspan comparable to the article above) has made the trees in my backyard part of his range. What kind of danger is my 6.5 pound Pomeranian in if he goes out alone at night?

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  3. 3. 1oldsarg 1:45 pm 01/28/2013

    I would worry about the Pom. Horned owls are regular predators on striped skunks and they are about that same size. Keep the doggy indoors after dark and on gloomy days. Yes, owls will hunt in the daytime if it’s cloudy.

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  4. 4. SuperString 6:31 pm 01/28/2013

    Thank you, 1oldsarg. I suspected as much.

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  5. 5. rugeirn 7:58 pm 01/28/2013

    @Kyle Hill:
    Are you sure you meant “obtuse?” Perhaps your mind was juggling between “obscure” and “abstruse”? Your “obtuse ‘multiple universe’ theories” would have to be blunt in form, great than 90 degrees, indistincly perceived, or stupid. Now I’ll grant that any theory can be any of those things, but I doubt any of them are what you meant.

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  6. 6. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:35 am 01/29/2013

    Very beautiful print of a Pheasant. It shows a bird with short, narrow wings and very long, graduated tail. Why do you say some small mammal died there?

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  7. 7. Broohaha 7:47 am 01/29/2013

    Jerzy is right. This isn’t a horned owl.

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  8. 8. Broohaha 9:50 am 01/29/2013

    Oh, wait.

    Are the “trailing feathers” actually its claws? And was I judging the scale wrongly?

    If so, my apologies.

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  9. 9. K.Hill 12:10 pm 01/29/2013

    Hey guys,

    According to the ruler that accompanied the print, we know it’s not a “pheasant” and that one possible bird that could produce such a wingspan is in fact the Northern Hawk Owl. I focused the post on it even though is could indeed be another bird–we just don’t have enough to go on.

    Also, the trailing tail print is not a super-long tail or the claws, but a dragging of the tail feathers. Owls strike with their tail feathers hitting the ground first, therefore elongating the print.

    You could see how the tail feathers might drag in this spectacular photo:

    Link to this
  10. 10. Broohaha 12:32 pm 01/29/2013

    Thanks, Kyle.

    Again, my apologies.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Postman1 10:55 pm 01/29/2013

    A really great picture of life and owls are one of my favorite animals. I too, having spent many years in northern forests, would bet on the game being a vole or mouse. No self respecting squirrel would be caught out in the open at night like this guy was. Thanks for the shot!

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  12. 12. bucketofsquid 12:54 pm 01/30/2013

    Are there “self respecting squirrels”? I’ve always thought of them as hairy tree rats. They are fun to watch as long as they stay out of my house and don’t chew holes in the screen door. Then we end up with an issue.

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  13. 13. Postman1 2:19 pm 01/30/2013

    bucketofsquid , you must be a Brit, LOL! My British Aunt has lived in the USA since the forties and they are still ‘tree rats’, one of my favorite sayings. Thanks for reminding me I need to check on her.

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  14. 14. bradsquared 5:16 pm 01/30/2013

    Yes, a very good essay with a welcome and well expressed theme. I especially liked the comments which are readable, pleasant, and sane, unlike most comments on SA articles (much to my disappointment).

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  15. 15. cccampbell38 7:35 pm 01/30/2013

    My guess is that this was a vole or other animal that was under the snow since there are no visible tracks leading into the kill site and no rabbit or squirrel is going to sit in the open long enough for that snow to accumulate.

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  16. 16. KipHansen 11:38 am 01/31/2013

    I agree with the vole as prey — popping up through the snow.

    There are no squirrel tracks showing in the picture. Anyone with winter outdoor experience knows how obvious squirrel tracks are, even after a day or two. No tracks — no squirrel.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Brent Eades 10:51 am 02/4/2013

    Agree with previous commenters, almost no possibility the prey was a squirrel — absence of tracks as noted, and the fact that the disturbed area in the snow appears quite a bit smaller than would be displaced by a squirrel, even if it had been somehow snatched from beneath the snow’s surface. Which isn’t plausible.

    Interesting photo though. Here’s a good series of photos of a Great Gray grabbing a vole from beneath the snow:

    Link to this

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