Image: Gavin Murphy
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.
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.
More often than not, nature is cruel, and hard on human sensibilities. But we can also subsume—or at least dull—those sensibilities by realizing natural selection, though it’s produced what looks to us like cruelty, has also given rise to both awesome animals involved in this interaction: the wary squirrel and the carnivorous owl.