The Christmas decorations are all put away, a blanket of snow covers the ground and chili is cooking in the Crockpot. The woods are pretty quiet except for the crunch of my boots in the frozen leaves as I walk down the trail. After dark, the unmistakable hoot-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoot call of the great horned owl breaks the silence of the winter woods.
Common throughout North America, the great horned owl begins setting up territory in early winter, calling out to its mate and warning off visitors. They prefer to take over used nests from red-tailed hawks, squirrels or crows. They will also use old hollowed out trees. Adaptable to many types of land, great horned owls can be found in desserts, wetlands, forests, suburban backyards and cities.
Great horned owls do not migrate, so why do they start their broods during the most frigid days of winter? These owls are very large birds, and they take much longer to mature. The eggs will incubate for 30-37 days before hatching.
Great horned owls have long ear-like tufts and deep yellow eyes. One of the largest owls, they stand nearly 2 feet tall and have wings that can extend up to 4 feet. Not only do they have excellent hearing and keen vision in low light, an owl’s talons can grab prey with a force of 30 pounds. Despite its size, the great horned owl can maneuver the woods and sneak up on prey undetected.
While an owl’s hoots may be heard more than a mile away, spotting an owl can be very difficult. Nocturnal creatures, they prefer to hunt at dusk and right before dawn. Their grey and brown feathers camouflage them well in the trees.
You may be able to find owl pellets on the ground underneath the trees where they are roosting. Owls tend to eat their prey whole. They regurgitate the indigestible hair, feathers and bones of their prey in 2-3 inch pellets.
I will never forget walking through the woods late one evening. I felt and then saw the silhouette of a great horned owl gliding past me through the woods. If you are fortunate enough to be roused from your sleep by the hoots of one of these magnificent creatures, pull the covers up a little tighter and be glad you aren’t sitting on a nest of eggs.
In another month the barred owls will start preparing to nest and will add their calls to the night air. Visit the Cornell Ornithology website to listen to the sounds of the great horned and other owls.