The Magnificent Great Horned Owl
“Every night the owl with his wild monkey-face calls through the black branches, and the mice freeze and the rabbits shiver in the snowy fields— and then there is the long, deep trough of silence when he stops singing, and steps into the air.” — Mary Oliver, “New and Selected Poems, Volume One”
It was more than 45 years ago when I saw a great horned owl in the wild for the first time. I was with my brother paddling Kemp Brook in southwestern New Hampshire when we saw a pair roosting in a tree next to the water. Kemp Brook is five miles long and much of it twists and turns through thick wetland shrub vegetation that hug the banks and stretch for hundreds of feet on either side of the central channel. The slow-moving water and surrounding wetlands are perfect habitat for several species of birds, fish, frogs, turtles and water snakes, as well as beaver, muskrat and the occasional otter. At water level the thick vegetation makes visibility beyond the next turn impossible, creating an exhilarating paddle experience.
We paddled the canoe around a sharp bend and startled a pair of great horned owls who had been roosting in a tall dead pine at the water’s edge. They silently lifted off as we came into view, making a swift retreat into the nearby forest. From then on, whenever we paddled Kemp Brook we would slowly make that same turn in the river, me in the stern and my brother in the bow with camera ready. We did see those same owls a few more times, always the highlight of our paddles on the brook.
As a youngster I had seen “Spooky” the Boston Museum of Science’s great horned owl on several family visits to the museum. Witnessing an owl in captivity does give you a chance to see the bird up close and to learn its unique characteristics, but nothing matches seeing them in the wild.
The great horned owl, Bubo virginianus, is the largest owl in North America and is a fierce predator to many mammals and other birds. Given its large size of 22 inches long, just over 3 pounds in weight and a wingspan of 44 inches, it is capable of taking large prey, such as rabbits, and is known to even attack great-blue herons, osprey and bald eagle nestlings. They will also eat rodents, frogs and snakes. Kemp Brook was perfect habitat for that pair of owls with plenty of their prey also calling the waterway home.
Primarily nocturnal, great horned owls have large eyes and pupils that open wide in the dark, providing excellent night vision. Their eyes don’t move in their sockets, but they can swivel their necks up to 180 degrees to look in any direction. They have excellent hearing and use their facial disc feathers to help direct sound into their ears.
One of the more haunting sounds in nature is the low muffled hoots of the great horned owl. Usually heard in the early evening or just before dawn, the sound is described in the Sibley Guide to Birds as a rhythmic series of hoo hoodoo hoooo hoo, or longer ho hoo hoo hoododo hoooo hoo. The female voice is a higher pitch than the male and courting females respond to males with what Sibley describes as a low, nasal, barking guwaay.
The male great horned owl will occupy a breeding territory from one-third to two square miles in the late fall and will hoot from several perches within the territory. Sometimes several males can be heard hooting and responding to each other to announce their territory boundary. Courtship begins in the winter months of December and January with nestbuilding and breeding to follow.
Great horned owls don’t build their own nests, preferring to make use existing nests of hawks, herons, crows and squirrels. Their nesting season starts before these other animals and upon finding their nest occupied by a great horned owl, the hawk will simply build a new one elsewhere.
The female will lay one to four white eggs, though in the east it is usually just two. In this region those eggs are usually laid in February. Incubation takes 28-30 days with the female doing most of the incubation during the day. The male takes over in the evening while the female goes off to hunt. The baby chicks are the size of baby chickens and are covered in a white down. At about two weeks of age they open their eyes and feathers begin to appear on their back. At three weeks wing and tail feathers begin to appear and at four to five weeks the chicks are more mobile and will move about the nest. At six to eight weeks they will perch on branches and sometimes on the ground where the adults will continue to bring them food.
During the three-month fledging phase they perch near the nest with adults bringing them food and by 10 weeks will begin sustained flying, sometimes following the adults and calling for food. By five months their flying and hunting skills have developed, and they are ready to survive on their own. By the end of August the young are independent and along with the adults will begin to roam beyond the territory.
Both the male and female have very similar plumage with a broad shaped body, yellow eyes, large head and ear-tufts that give the head a catlike shape. Their soft feathers provide excellent insulation against cold winters and aid in their silent flight. The female is slightly larger than the male, though it can be hard to tell them apart unless they are perched next to each other.
Their color is a mottled grey-brown with reddish brown faces and a white throat patch. Their wings are shorter than other large birds, broad and rounded to aid in maneuvering among forest trees. In flight the rounded head and short bill give a blunt appearance.
I have heard great horned owl calls from the woods beyond our back pasture and hope to someday see one near our property. We also have many crows that live in our neighborhood and they are known to relentlessly mob and harass the great horned owl (as well as hawks and other owls). Next time I hear crows making a racket and mobbing a bird, I’ll be heading towards the sound in hopes of catching a glimpse of a great horned owl.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley that is home to many amazing animals, even the great horned owl. It’s like having a National Park in our own backyard. I hope you’ll join me and together let us care for it, enjoy it and pass it on.
Information for this column was sources from the Sibley Guide to Birds by David Sibley and the Stokes Nature Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume III, by Donald and Lillian Stokes.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in and explored the region for over 40 years and can be reached at email@example.com
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