Nice to see you again. Most birds are thinking of surviving the winter cold by going south or producing layers of fat and new types of insulating feathers. Right now, and into late January, the Great Horned Owls are already going through their courtship hooting rituals. Since they mate for life most pairs by their intense hooting, are just resurfacing old bonds.
Sometime in late January the females will have found a suitable nesting site in their territory. Since these owls don’t build their own nests, they must rely on last year’s nests of crows, red-tailed hawks, and even squirrel leaf clusters to lay their two to five eggs. When Great Horned Owls live in suburban areas, ledges of buildings have been used.
Because of the cold weather, eggs are incubated as soon as they are layed. The late layed eggs hatch out three to four days later, causing possible death. Bird, like chickens or pheasants, lay all their eggs - usually one a day - before incubation, so they all hatch out at the same time. Once the female owl lays her eggs, she becomes the nest tender, depending on the male to bring her food. Biting cold, driving winds, swinging trees, snow, and pelting sleet or rain seem to make her more determined to hatch the eggs she is protecting.
If Mother Nature has been kind, sometime in early March the fuzzy young hatch out. The female will hover over the young for the first week, but eventually will leave them, more or less on their own, except to bring them food, which she and the male will catch. Most of the feeding is done several times during the night. The adults will kill any kind of bird or mammal by can catch. The young are fed a diet of rats, mice, rabbits, pigeons, pheasants and skunks -- yes, I said skunks!
Apparently, the Great Horned Owl has good eyesight and hearing, but poor smell. Many nest sites and even the adults when they are captured or found dead, will smell of skunk. One night i smelled skunk. When I turned on the porch light and went outside, there was a Great Horned Own on top of a squirming skunk. The owl flew away, but the next morning, the skunk was gone.
Owls swallow most of their prey whole, or in chunks. Some body parts are not digested and later on are regergitated in the form of pellets. Inside these balls of fur and feather can be found the bones, jaws, and the entire skulls of small birds and mammals. Many of these pellets may be found at an often used feeding site. When I was teaching biology at Boyertown, I would gather pellets and take them to school for the students to disect. Using a special lab manual, the students could identify the owl food.
Other than humans, the greatest problem for the Great Horned Owl must be crows. The large black birds seem to know where every owl roosts, and the location of all the nests. It appears when things get boring, crows love to gang up on dozing owls, and harass them around the woods until they tire of the chase. They never bother an owl on nest, but will send scouts to check on a nesting female.
With a good diet, the young grow rapidly, and by the 6th week, they are ready to leave the nest. At this time, the young owls can be seen sitting on the edge of the nest, or on a branch some distance from the nest.
When they leave the nest areas, their first flight is usually a disaster. They will leap from the nest, flapping their wings, but more often than not, come crashing to the ground. Using their hooked beaks and sharp toe claws, they will climb to some higher perch. They can be found immediately in an area of the nest tree for a day or two, but apparently the parents, by teasing them with food, get them to leave the nest area. The youngsters are cared for by the parents through the summer, and into the fall. By the time next years courting season rolls around, the old birds have forcefully chased the juniors out of the territory.
The “archduke of the woods” is a powerful predator. Since it is often heard, seldom seen, and mysterious in its ways, the night time hooting can strike fear into the hearts and minds of many a woodland visitor.
See you next time.