Are owls immune to snakebite?

Published 11:02 pm Saturday, December 2, 2006

I was sitting out in back last weekend overlooking Betsy’s High Place, where the Lion lies down with the Lamb, and a squirrel scampered across the lower part of the Mammy Grudge ditchbank and started up the side of a tall slim straight hackberry tree.

Squirrels ain’t particularly popular with the First Lady of Brownspur, especially this long hot dry summer. She waters her flowerbeds to keep them pretty, and squirrels dig holes in them, even digging up the plants. She waters the St. Augustine lawn, and squirrels dig holes in the yard. I’m supposed to be carrying out her orders of executing squirrels on sight, regardless of the fact that there’s a season on the bushytailed diggers.

But as I sat up to see did I have time to grab a 22 rifle, I saw that another hunter had entered the arena. From back toward the Mammy Grudge, a great horned owl zipped through the treetops like unto a mallard coming in to flooded woods, and he snatched that squirrel off the side of that hackberry in a split second! I jumped up to run up the ditchbank, but the owl wasn’t having anyone to share his supper. He flapped off across the Mammy Grudge, the bushytail barely squirming in his claws.

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I figured it had to be Major.

We raised/rehabbed a great horned owl several summers ago, the young bird having tangled with a fish pond aerator. Son Adam, who pitched for a couple of championship baseball teams on the Millsaps Majors, named him Major and taught him to ride on his wrist.

We kept him for several months until he could fly well again, but Major has stayed close by since we released him. He paired up with a Miz Major a year or so ago, and there was a big nest I figured was theirs in a tall cottonwood tree across the Mammy Grudge. Anyhoo, it made Betsy feel better knowing that Major is looking out for her flowers on the High Place.

Joe the Rookie once came in excited from a morning on a deer stand close by, where he had seen a hawk snatch a squirrel off the side of a tree right beside his stand. He said the bird flashed by, reached out to grab the squirrel, and hit the ground full speed, taking the lick on his shoulder. The hawk laid there squeezing the life out of the bushytail, until Joe thought maybe the bird had been hurt, too. But finally the hawk sat up, fluffled up its feathers, and began feeding on its prey.

I have written about it before, but one of the most dramatic confrontations I’ve ever seen an owl engage in was once when I was headed to a Kairos International Prison Ministry meeting in Jackson, and was balling the jack early on a Saturday morning along that mostly-deserted stretch of highway between Holly Bluff and Satartia. A half mile up ahead, a huge moccasin started across the road – and if you can tell it’s a stumptail at a half mile, it’s a BIG snake! Having been struck three times by such vipers, I stomped it, to try to run him over.

But before I got there, a great horned owl swooped down and pinned the snake to the asphalt by its midsection, then began tearing at the scaly body with its beak. For the uninitiated in the ways of owldom, a full-grown owl can literally bite nails in two!

I slammed on the brakes less than 20 yards away, to watch the fight. The owl had its wings cupped out, and the stumptail was whanging away at the bird, though it appeared that the wing was taking most of the strikes. They fought tooth and toenails for what seemed like ten minutes, then the owl took off with the snake in its claws, still striking, and flew to the top of a cypress, where it began to feed on the writhing serpent.

As soon as I could get back home, I called my favorite wildlife injury expert, to see if an owl was somehow immune to moccasin venom. Dr. Ed expressed a woeful degree of ignorance on that subject. Well, then, I wanted to know, what would he prescribe for a snakebit owl? There was a lot of hemming and hawing, to the effect that he really had no experience in snakebit owls. Okay, then, what about owlbit snakes, I wondered. I knew where one of those was that he could work on at least parts of.

What DO they teach those people in Veterinarian School?