Pound-for-pound, a great horned owl easily ranks among North America’s gnarliest predators. It comes by its "winged tiger" nickname pretty darn honestly, what with acute nocturnal senses, lethally silent flight, vice-like talons and a seemingly fearless spirit.

Even for this well-armed feathered assassin, however, predation entails plenty of risk. A piece of rare footage captured this month on a hunting ranch in Texas (and recently spotlighted by Justin Hoffman over at Wide Open Spaces) plainly shows what "backfire" can mean for a raptor.

According to Champion Ranch's Facebook page, one of its guides noticed a grounded horned owl and approached to investigate. That's when he noticed that the bird, flat on its back and still blinking, was actually wrapped in the coils of a gopher snake (or bullsnake):


The feisty (and nonvenomous) serpent actually strikes at the guide when he steps closer to film the combatants:


The likeliest explanation for this odd sight is an owl attack gone awry, as great horned owls readily snack on snakes. In this case, it seems, the targeted reptile managed to loop its body around its attacker and turn the tables. While the owl's still alive in these video clips, the Champion Ranch Facebook post reports that the bird ultimately died.

"Birds of prey are common predators of snakes," Auburn University wildlife ecologist (and Earth Touch News contributor) David Steen told me over email, "and it is thought that a snake's coiling behaviour could be a defensive mechanism that restricts the flight of these birds and reduces the chance of getting eaten."

Uncommon as it is to actually chance upon a nabbed snake getting the better of a raptor, there's precedent for the Champion Ranch incident. In 1999, a great horned owl was found dead in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas with an equally expired southern black racer wrapped once around a wing and twice around its neck. In a journal article, those who'd made the discovery speculated that a black racer's typical defensive response to a person grabbing it just behind the head – coiling around the assailant's arm and constricting – likely explained how this encounter played out.

"Initially, the owl captured the snake and inflicted head trauma," the authors speculated, for the racer's head showed a serious wound. "However, the snake, by coiling around the owl's wing, disabled the owl's ability to escape or fly. Once the owl lost its ability to escape from the snake, the snake strangled the owl." (Obviously the racer then succumbed to its injuries.)

Steen noted that there are a few known instances of gopher snakes pulling off this sort of manoeuvre with hawks.

Venomous snakes, meanwhile, can pose their own special problems for a serpent-hungry raptor. Red-tailed hawks (essentially the great horned owl's diurnal counterpart) have been found apparently killed by bites from rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and coral snakes they'd captured.

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Barring these occasional successful counterattacks, snakes usually find themselves on the losing end of things against full-grown birds of prey. The flipside? Tree-climbing snakes may raid raptor nests for eggs and hatchlings. Check out this dramatic video (courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Bird Cams network) of a mother barn owl driving off a Texas rat snake from her brood.

(Owls eating snakes, snakes eating owlets, snakes attacking owls that attacked them – those categories encompass most, but not all, of the full breadth of the owl/serpent relationship. Fun fact: burrowing owls (which fall into that universally loved, adorable camp alongside critters like meerkats and pandas) defend themselves with a hiss remarkably similar to the rattle of rattlesnakes, which are the birds' flatmates in the tunnels of ground squirrels and prairie dogs. Experimental studies suggest the burrowing owl's defensive hiss may well be a case of "Batesian mimicry" – that is, a harmless animal pretending to be a harmful one to discourage predation.)



Top header image: Wade Tregaskis/Flickr