A farewell to the owls of West Virginia

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Great Horned Owl

About a week before Christmas my wife and I were back on the ridge in West Virginia getting the house ready for new owners. We planned to leave before dark.

When we finally got into the car at about 6 p.m., I cracked a window. At 6:03 a tremulous whistle rose from the woods below. As if on cue, an eastern screech owl serenaded us.

We knew it was simply talking to its mate, but we decided it had come to say goodbye. Five minutes later another nocturnal friend hooted from behind the garage.

“Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-allll?”

Song

Barred owls have always been my favorite owl because its song was so easy for my daughters to master even as little girls. I answered this one, and we shared a brief conversation.

With only one more species to chime in, Linda suggested we wait a few more minutes to see if we might get lucky.

At 6:22, two sets of deep hoots from across the road on the other side of the ridge caught our ears. The syllables were muffled, but loud.

The first, deeper call came from a male. A higher pitched female replied. This time we just eavesdropped on their duet — a form of courtship behavior.

This pair of great horned owls made us 3 for 3; we now had permission to leave.

Predators

No small- or medium-sized mammal would be safe on the ridge on this night. Deer mice, meadow voles, opossums and cottontails were all potential entrees tonight.

Owls of all sizes are ferocious predators, and sometimes big owls eat smaller owls. So the 6-ounce screech owl fears the 1.6-pound barred owl, and the barred owl fears the 3-pound great horned owl.

This may explain why the screech and barred owls stayed 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 they pick the carcass 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 — 2 feet tall with a wingspan of nearly 4 feet — great horned owls often go undetected in the woods.

They spend daylight hours perched quietly in conifers or in deciduous trees clinging 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.

Courting

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 lays the first of her two or three eggs in late January or early February. Incubation begins immediately with the laying of the first egg and continues for 26 to 35 days; the first egg laid is the first to hatch.

Young horned owls remain in the nest for more than two months and cannot fly until they are about 10 weeks old.

Acquiring the skills to hunt successfully takes time and practice, but once mastered, nothing in the woods does it better than great horned owls.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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