Outdoor Snooper: ‘Watching the Great Horned Owl'

Nice to see you again. Back in the late ‘80’s for a period of six years, I studied the nesting behaviors of the Great Horned Owls. My first four years were spent watching the same pair go through their normal living - winter nesting, rearing of the young, and dispersal of the young from the nest.

It all started by accident during October bow season. On stand one evening, in a very remote area, I happened to see a Great Horned Owl land near what appeared to be the past season’s nest of a Red Tailed Hawk. The owl flew to the nest, entered it, and began to “rutch” around like a setting chicken on her eggs.

I knew that the Great Horned Owls didn’t start their reproductive cycle until early winter, so I figured this might be a potential nest. Keeping this little bit of information in my memory bank, I went back in mid-January to check out the nest. I cautiously approached the area of the nest, using binoculars to make long distance observations. Sure enough, I saw the horn-like tufts of feathers protruding above the large interwoven stick nest.

When I approached to within 50 yards of the large Poplar tree, the owl flew off the nest, located about 60 ft. high. Each time i visited the nest the owl would make a hasty exit. If the weather was very cold, the female would attempt an early return, but as long as I was in the immediate area, she would stay her distance.

Since the eggs might chill, I, at first, made a hasty exit. Soon, I made a slick blind in order to hide and take pictures - this she accepted and would return to the nest. When snow was on the ground, a white sheet hung over a rope, tied between two trees - it worked well. I cut a hole in the sheet for my camera, which allowed me to sit and watch for hours. There is nothing more exciting than watching an owl setting on a nest for hours - like watching paint dry!

When I would exit either blind, she would fly away. However, there was a difference - when I would leave the stick blind, her movement was slow and deliberate, as if she knew I was there. My exit from behind the white sheet always caused a more hasty, panic type action and flight. To her, it must have looked like I came right out of the ground. She remained shy and suspicious every mating season throughout my four years of observation. I was lucky, and the owls were lucky that the Red Tailed Hawks used and rebuilt the nest twice during the four years. Now, if I would have based all my knowledge of owl nesting behavior on this remote female, I would have been partially correct.

Later in my study, I received a call from a local car dealer - “Spence Ford,” that there was an owl nest located in the rear of his used car lot. When he told me of the nest location, I was skeptical, but never-the-less, I went to investigate.

The nest was very low, only 20 feet off the ground, and consisted of nothing more than debris that had collected in the crotch of a Willow tree. Prospective car buyers walking only a few yards from the nest, never knowing it was there. I received permission to observe the nest day or night.

When I started observing the nest, the young were about three weeks old. The female was still brooding, remaining on the nest, even with all the close human activity. I could drive my truck within a few yards of the nest, take pictures, listen to the radio, read a book, be out of the rain, and still observe the owl. My study even went on through the night because of the lights that illuminated the car lot. I even informed the local constabulary of my night time activities.

Being so close, I could hear the sounds, many new, of the tending mother and the feeding young. I could even see and hear the male sitting on neighboring night lights, and hear new sounds because I was so close. The shriek, harnk, chitters, clucking, along with the clicking and hisses. I decided to place a microphone near the nest. By using a ladder and a long pole holding the phone and wires, I recorded the sounds made by the mother and the always anxious young.

I wasn’t sure what reaction the mother owl and the three young might show when the pole was pushed to the nest. The youngsters, as usual, began clicking and hissing, but soon settled down, totally ignoring the new object. When the mother owl returned, she landed on her favorite branch, pausing a few moments before she made her awkward walk back to the young. She spied the mike, watched for several seconds, then made her way out of the nest and back up the branch. Her attention was still on the mike when she made her second approach to the nest. This time, she seemed more determined, moving smartly down the branch, walking across the backs of the young, and attacked the mike with her beak.

Like a shot, I was out the truck, yelling “Get away from my mike,” as I ran toward the nest tree. The mother owl panicked and flew into the darkness. The mike which received several scratches, did its job recording the funny episode. The mike was in use, and recorded a few new low sounds made between the mother and young. After watching the behavior of these two female owls, they had much in common, but there was enough variations that allowed each to cope and survive in their local environment.

See you next time.

Join the Conversation