Nesting Owls in Winter

Nesting Owls in Winter

There are sounds of nature that make me stop what I am doing and listen intently, as if drawn into a deep wildness that is both awesome and yet unnerving. No sound does this more for me than the call or hoot of an owl, a deliberate deep to medium-pitched sound that often waivers as it trails off, giving it an eerie and ghostly expression. The call penetrates the quiet of the dark hours, a startling sound in the night bringing a sudden flush of surprise, vulnerability and wonder.

This past month, on more than one evening, I heard two owls calling to each other. I knew the calls to be the hoots of great horned owls and ventured outside to get a better listen. One call was coming from the woods next to our back pasture, and the other was a bit further away, perhaps in the stand of pines adjacent to a large corn field. I couldn’t tell if it was two males arguing over territory, or a male and female, maybe a mated pair with a nest nearby. The “Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior” describes the auditory displays of great horned owls as a “series of four or five deep, resonant hoots, given in various rhythms by different individuals. Female hoots are shorter and higher-pitched than those of the male, even though she is a larger bird.” I hope to hear them again and will listen carefully to determine if it is two males, or hopefully a male and female.

This is the time of year when great horned owls and their brethren, barred owls and screech owls, are nesting. It may seem unusual for birds to be nesting in winter, but it is the same with other large raptors, such as bald eagles. Of the bald eagle nests I keep track of in The Last Green Valley, several are active with both males and females making repairs to their nests. Eggs have been laid or will be soon with hatching later in March and into early April.

A recent e-newsletter from CT DEEP Wildlife provided the following information. “Owls generally begin mating and nesting in mid-winter, laying and incubating their eggs months ahead of most other raptors. One advantage for starting so early is that young owls will have more time to grow and mature into effective predators over the summer and fall before the next winter. Nesting owls are quite vocal this time of year, as pairs frequently communicate with each other, share incubation duties and defend their territory from other owls and potential threats.”

Here is some additional information on the great horned owl, barred owl and screech owl.

Great horned owls can grow to 22 inches long with wingspans of 44 inches and can weigh slightly more than 3 lbs. They are the largest of our common owls and are a predator to many large mammals as well as birds. They are the mortal enemy of bald eagles with the ability to swoop down silently at night to snatch an eagle nestling. They also prey at night on osprey and great blue herons. Their territory defense is from November through July with courtship in January and February, and nest building and breeding in late January through July.

Here is a link to recordings of various great horned owl calls from the Cornell Lab for Ornithology, All About Birds website.

Barred owls are common in southern New England and are the most vocal. They are 21 inches long with a wingspan of 42 inches and weigh about 1.6 lbs. I have heard them hoot even in the middle of summer with a distinctive, lonely-sounding call of “hoo, hoo, hoo cooks for you…”. They maintain a territory year-round with courtship in February and March, nest building in early March and breeding from March through August.

Here is a link to various barred owl calls from the Cornell Lab for Ornithology, All About Birds website.

Eastern screech owls are smaller than both great horned and barred owls at only 8.5 inches long and a wingspan of 20 inches and weight of 5 ounces. The call of the eastern screech owl has been described as a whinny-call or a monotone-call. Like the great horned and barred owl, the male is smaller in size, but also has a lower voice than the female. Like the barred owl they maintain territory year-round with courtship in February and March, nest building in late March and breeding late March until late July.

Here is a link to various eastern screech owl calls from the Cornell Lab for Ornithology, All About Birds website. The website indicates that “both males and females sing, and their most common sound is the even-pitched trill, often called a bounce song or tremolo; and a shrill, descending whinny. The tremolo is used by pairs or families to keep in touch and is 3-6 seconds long.”

Winter may still have its icy grip on The Last Green Valley, but already some of our wild animals are getting a jump on the annual rituals of courtship, mating and raising young.

Spring is coming. I heard it in the hoot of a great horned owl last month and hope to hear it again soon.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. The more we experience the great outdoors, the more we understand our wildlife and come to appreciate all the natural resources we can enjoy so close to home. I hope you’ll join me, and together let us care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.

Information for this column was gleaned from the “Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume III,” by Donald and Lillian Stokes, the “Sibley Guide to Birds,” by David Allen Sibley, and the CT DEEP Wildlife Division.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and can be reached at 860-774-3300, or



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