A few nights into the new year, three different species of owl sang within earshot of the back porch. It began shortly after 9 p.m. with the tremulous whistle of an eastern screech owl.
A few minutes later a barred owl sang from deeper in the woods.
“Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?”
I answered it, and we shared a brief conversation. Then two sets of hoots revealed the presence of a pair of great horned owls. The first, deeper call came from a male. A higher pitched female replied. This time I just eavesdropped on their duet — a form of courtship behavior.
Owls of all sizes are ferocious predators and sometimes big owls eat smaller owls. So the six-ounce screech owl fears the 1.6-pound barred owl, and the barred owl fears the three-pound great horned owl.
This may explain why the screech and barred owls got quiet after the great horns sang. East of the Mississippi River, the great horned owl reigns as king of the woods. They sit atop the food chain. They eat everything from insects to crows, bats, flying squirrels, cats, tiny toy dogs, skunks, raccoons, porcupines and weasels, though mice, rats and cottontails comprise most of their diet.
Great horned owls are even known to take turkeys off the roost. When food is abundant, great horned owls sometimes kill more than they need. When food is scarce, they cache their kills and return repeatedly until the carcass is picked clean.
During very cold weather these stored kills can freeze. Great horns solve this problem quite simply. They “incubate” the frozen prey until it thaws. Then they eat it. Despite their size — two feet tall with a wingspan of nearly four feet — great horned owls often go undetected in the woods.
They spend daylight hours perched quietly in conifers or in deciduous trees that cling tenaciously to clumps of dead leaves. And they spread themselves out.
A single bird may cover more than a square mile in the course of its daily activities. The best time to find great horned owls is late November through January.
This is when males and females court. Over a period of weeks, the male woos the female. He feeds her. He performs noisy aerial displays. He defends her. They duet. Eventually they get serious and select a nest.
Great horned owls don’t build their own nests; they take over an old nest. Often it’s an old red-tailed hawk or crow nest, but occasionally they use a large tree cavity. If the female is experienced, she may use the same nest she used the previous year.
The female kicks off the avian nesting season by laying the first of her two or three eggs in late January or early February. Three days later she lays another. If food is abundant, she may lay a third egg, but as often as not two eggs complete the clutch.
Though the eggs are laid at three-day intervals, incubation begins immediately with the first egg. This is why you may see photographs of owlets of several sizes in the same nest. The eldest sibling in a brood of three may be six days older than the youngest.
Incubation continues for 26 to 35 days; the first egg laid is the first to hatch. Because great horned owls nest so early, the nest often gets covered with a blanket of snow.
It seems a harsh way to bring a brood into the world, but the parents don’t seem to mind. They take turns warming the eggs. Snow may blanket the incubating parent, but its soft downy feathers keep the eggs warm and dry.
Nestling horned owls grow rapidly and quickly develop the ability to regulate their own body temperature, but they remain in the nest for more than two months. They begin to exercise their wings at six weeks, but cannot fly until they are about 10 weeks old.
Young owls perfect their hunting skills slowly and remain dependent on their parents for food well into fall. Acquiring the skills to hunt successfully takes time and practice, but once mastered, nothing in the woods does it better than the great horned owl.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my website, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.