Owls bounce back from bounty-hunting days

by Elsa Cooke Verbyla - Posted on Apr 06, 2011 - 04:23 PM

Photo: Perhaps having a nest nearby, or sensing the presence of a good meal of mice and squirrels, this great horned owl perched for some time Saturday night in a pine tree near Mathews Court House. The owl, once a hunted creature, is now staging something of a comeback. Photo by Elsa Cooke Verbyla.

Perhaps having a nest nearby, or sensing the presence of a good meal of mice and squirrels, this great horned owl perched for some time Saturday night in a pine tree near Mathews Court House. The owl, once a hunted creature, is now staging something of a comeback. Photo by Elsa Cooke Verbyla.

"Kill them all," wrote the Rev. Noel J. Allen in 1920, regarding the incentive posed by a recently-increased bounty from the state for the destruction of hawks and owls.

"In a comparatively short time in Gloucester 227 men and boys and one woman have killed 983 hawks and 137 big owls, and the good work is still going strong," Allen wrote to the Mathews Journal.

He was a fierce advocate of eradicating the raptors in order to preserve chicken yards and the quail population. And in that distant time when Allen wrote, the Virginia Game Commission was matching each county-paid bounty of 25 cents or more a bird, with 25 cents from state funds.

The bounty lasted for some years but was gone by 1937, when Allen vented his frustration in another letter to the Journal: "The present statewide wail over the disappearance of small game and the reappearance of the scourge of hawks, owls, crows and other vermin shows a … despicable tolerance. The statewide bounty on vermin was a fully proved success. The last year I led this work there were killed in Virginia in the one year 67,276 hawks, 11,693 owls, 58,658 crows and 15,699 weasels."

The great horned owl is on the come-back trail. Now protected along with other raptors, the nocturnal creature is a frequently heard (if not seen) member of the local bird population. Pre-dawn hooting conversations have become familiar in rural areas where the owls make their homes, and sightings of the large owls at dusk, as they search for meals from trees or in fields, are often reported.