Owl 'Swims' for Its Life in Rare Video

Hikers wading through a canyon captured video of an owl exhibiting the strange behaviour.

While hiking through a canyon in Lake Powell between Utah and Arizona in late 2016, Derrick Zuk and his friends saw one of the last things anyone ever expects an owl to do—swim.

Following behind with his camera, Zuk waded through the water to capture the owl's behaviour as it bobs in and out of the water, swimming in a way that resembles a human's breast stroke.

When the owl finally emerges from the water, making it to a small mound of earth, its wings look soaked and heavy. 

This isn't the first time an owl has been spotted seemingly swimming through the water. In 2014, a photographer captured a great horned owl similarly swimming across Lake Michigan, which racked up over two million video views.

Watch rare video of a swimming great horned owl.

With these owls appearing to move relatively easily through the water, some have started to wonder if swimming is an owl's hidden talent. But experts are quick to point out that swimming is actually a measure of last resort for these birds.

In an email with National Geographic, Geoff LeBaron, the Christmas bird count director at the National Audubon Society, noted that the owl—which still has some of its nestling feathers—is likely a young great horned owl that has only just begun to explore the world beyond its nest.

"I suspect it actually fell out of the nest," said LeBaron. "In the West especially, great horned [owls] do nest on ledges on cliffs, often in raven or other birds' nests that they take over." He suspects the young owl could have also fallen out of its nest or faltered during an early test flight.

"This bird is young enough that the parents were probably still caring for it, so hopefully once the folks go by, the bird dried off and its parents found it," LeBaron offered.

The 2014 video of the owl swimming in Lake Michigan resulted from the adult bird lunging to escape two Peregrine falcons, which can be highly territorial.

Zuk and his hiking group noted that before the owl plunged into the water, it was flying low and, they thought, trying to scare them off.

In an interview with the Audubon Society, Michigan State University ornithologist Matthew Zwiernik explained that while owls can swim through water, they rarely do by choice.

"It's not very common because they have no means of defence once they're in the water," said Zwiernik. Owls aren't able to ascend from the water until they reach land, and their large talons don't propel them through the water quickly.

Great horned owls are frequently seen in the American south-west, where Zuk's video was filmed, but they're highly adaptable and can be found anywhere from Antarctica to North and South America.

Despite their name, great horned owls do not actually have horns. They earned this moniker from the "plumicorns" or tufts of feathers that protrude from their heads.

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