The wildest place in Billings may be Caryle and Wally Streeter’s backyard atop the Rims.
“I think I have the best part of Montana,” Caryle said, which includes a view overlooking the city.
Tucked into the pine trees off Highway 3, the couple’s home may look like it’s out of the Southwest, with its stucco walls and tile roof, but the critters wandering through are all Montanan. The parade includes rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, even a bobcat and cougar. More recently, since about July, a tree just outside their bedroom has become home to a family of great horned owls.
“They’re fun to watch because their heads swivel about 180 degrees,” Wally said, pointing out one of the owls roosting in a nearby ponderosa pine.
Great horned owls are the most common owl species in North America, probably because they are so adaptable to a wide range of habitat — everything from wetlands and forests to cities and deserts. They get their name from the tufts of feathers above the eyes that resemble horns.
The birds are year-round residents, toughing out winters without flying south. They are also monogamous, breeding for life. If you see two of them together, the male is smaller than the female. Adults range in size from 18 inches to 2 feet tall and can weigh from 2 to 5 pounds.
“I had one sitting on the roof (just outside the bedroom window) with his eyes closed, that’s when I realized how enormous they are,” Caryle said.
Another reason great horned owls may be found in so many places is that they have one of the most diverse diets of North American raptors. They will eat everything from scorpions and reptiles to raptors, crows, ducks, fish and carrion. The owls typically hunt in the evening or at dawn, diving down to grip their prey with large talons that when clenched shut require 28 pounds of force to open.
“I’ve seen an owl grab a squirrel, which is quite incredible to see,” Caryle said. “Its wings were spread as it fluttered to get up in the air and it looked like snow as feathers fell out. So it has been quite interesting to watch.”