Analysing a Rabbit kill on the Trail

I had to document a death that happened on the trail yesterday. The victim was a cottontail and the perpetrator was either a Great Horned, or a Barred Owl. Although you can’t see them well in the photos, the distinctive owl foot prints were there. A picture of a dead rabbit is not the most pleasant thing to post, but I found this interesting. Regrettably I think I interrupted the bird as I came over the hill, because a short distance from the kill site I found the rabbit laying in the brush. I left the area quickly in hopes that the bird would return, but I have my doubts.  Mark

These where Mark/s original comments on discovering the Rabbit kill on the trail. We had naturalist Dan Farmer also anaylise the photos and give his opinions on what took place there. More very interesting remarks from Dan.

There is not enough detail in the pictures that I can see to do anything but guess. If the hiker flushed a bird of prey in daytime it might well be a hawk kill. Owls, particularly female Great Horned Owls could and likely would carry the rabbit off and would likely have made the kill at night. Barred Owls do hunt more in the daytime and would have a harder time carrying a full grown Eastern Cottontails as would Red-tailed Hawks. We might expect Rough-legged Hawks to be hunting this region now too. How far was the body from the capture/kill site? Owls often “pop” the head off. Was the head there? Are there more pictures available of the kill site?? If the 2nd picture is where the hiker had backtracked and this is the spot where the kill was made, I would have expected wing prints, besides blood, urine, etc. I have backtracked where an owl took an Eastern Cottontail and wing prints were prominent. Perhaps wing prints were there but do not show clearly in the picture. Owls are zygodactyl, that is they have one toe (the first toe) that can go forward or back so where the caption mentions a track belonging to an owl I am unclear about where it is. Maybe the hiker (Mark Wilson) saw a track that was 2 forward and 2 back??? Can you find out more? For the toe thing check out…
Zygodactyl Foot
This unique foot can be found on woodpeckers, owls, most parrots, and other birds. It is the second most common toe arrangement. In this foot the first (hallux) and fourth digit face backwards while the second and third digit face forwards. 
In woodpeckers, this type of foot is excellent for clinging to the
trunks of trees. The tow toes in the back give the bird more support. For parrots, this type of foot is excellent for holding food. Parrots often feed by holding their food in one foot and bringing the food up to their beak, just like we use our hands to eat. Although owls have this toe arrangement, they have the special ability to rotate their fourth digit to the front. This helps the owl perch, hold its food, and grab its prey.  Dan

Mark adds further answers to Dan’s questions and the analysis continues.

Apologies for the poor picture quality, these were on my iPhone. Here are a few more facts on this.
The footprints in the kill site photo are in the upper right of the picture; two toes were facing the right side of the photo. The toes were probably 2” to 2 ½” long. My assumption is that the back two toes were on the rabbit.
I came upon this shortly after sunrise right along the edge of a 30+ year old Red Pine plantation. I felt the time of day and the habitat were Owl conducive. This was a rather wet snow, and although not pictured, there were wing prints in the snow.
Again not pictured, but the head was in fact missing from the rabbit.
The rabbit was within 10’ of the kill site. One other spot at the edge of the trail (approximately 6’ away) indicated that the bird and landed and then lifted the rabbit again to its location where pictured.
I’m reasonably familiar with the characteristics of Owl and Hawk feet having seen both up close on many occasions at a rehabilitation facility.



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