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It’s in your nature: Great horned owls

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    This fledgling great horned owl, still with developing ear tufts and downy feathers, was found grounded near its nest. I placed it on a partially uprooted nearby tree and it made its way upward to a safer roost.

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    LEFT: A barred owl, only a few inches smaller than the great horned owl, needs to be wary because it too could fall prey to its bigger cousin. RIGHT: This fledgling great horned owl, still with developing ear tufts and downy feathers, was found grounded near its nest. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    What a surprise to “capture” a female horned owl peeking over the edge of last year’s red-tailed hawk nest I went to photograph. Look closely for its ear tufts above the nest edge. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Published February 09. 2019 06:49AM

The Times News area’s largest resident owl is the great horned owl. Its “horns” are actually fairly long feathery tufts. The owl’s ears are actually on the sides of its head and concealed by the feathers there. This owl has about a 5-foot wingspan and the female (larger than the male) weighs up to 3½ pounds.

I chose this time to highlight them because they are usually our earliest nesters. Most great horned owls are now laying their eggs, and about 30 days later they will hatch. It is no wonder they are considered an aggressive and fearless bird when we know that they start their lives in the toughest time of the year.

From mid-March until the end of May the young owls remain in or near the nest until they can fly. As in all the owls, the female lays an egg every other day with no more than three eggs to complete her clutch. She begins incubating the eggs as soon as they are laid, and as a result one chick can be five to seven days older than its youngest nest mate. The result is a larger owlet, which in stressful (reduced prey available) times may often kill and eat its siblings.

Great horned owls don’t build their own nests. They usually use an old hawk or crow nest high in a sturdy tree. Horned owls nest throughout most of the U.S. but they do shy away from areas of higher human activity. For nesting success, they need less nest area disturbance. Great horned owls are most vocal from October through December as they re-establish their pair bonds and territory.

They are most likely the owls you will hear at dusk or again before sunrise. They “shut up” as daylight approaches because their calling will alert crows. I have found a number of roosting “horned owls” by following the racket made by dozens of crows harassing them incessantly until the owl is finally chased from the crows’ section of the woods.

This owl’s larger size allows them to catch a variety of prey animals. Rabbits seem to be their preference partly because of their abundance and mostly nocturnal activity. However, squirrels, mice, rats, birds, weasels and even poultry are prey items as well. They are almost the only predator of skunks and their general lack of sense of smell must help with that. Other owls, young foxes and even house cats fall prey when the adults have hungry mouths to feed. Owls, unlike hawks, do not pluck their prey before eating. They eat fur, flesh and even small bones. Later the owl regurgitates a relatively dry pellet which contains bits of bones, fur and feathers. A favorite owl roost may be located by finding these gray pellets beneath the tree.

Test your outdoor knowledge: A catkin is _________. A. a type of mushroom, B. the name of a rabbit nest, C. a drying seed pod of a birch tree, D. any relative of a cat.

Last week’s trivia answer: The black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, bluebird and house wren all nest in tree cavities, and of course will use your nest boxes as well.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

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