A sudden intake of breath, a moment of stunned attention. This is how most of us react when we encounter a great horned owl. If the owl is looking at us, those big yellow eyes seem to bore right into our own, holding our gaze for many heartbeats. The overriding impression is of a very large bird (about 2 feet tall), hinting at its charisma and potential for fierceness.
But it’s a safe guess that not many of us see these owls because they’re night hunters and take care to remain hidden during the day. This is prime time for hearing male and female owls hooting to each other, however, something they do in winter (and autumn) as they build toward nesting season. Great horned owls’ deep, resonant hoots are what come to mind when we think of owl calls, but they make various other sounds, too — whinnying, screeching, squawking and caterwauling to attract a mate and define a territory.
Even as cold as it is, once they’ve established themselves as a pair, most great horned females lay their eggs in February, and begin sitting on them right away. To keep eggs from freezing she needs to incubate them around the clock, relying on her mate to bring in food. Once the youngsters hatch, usually around mid-March, she continues to gather them underneath her to share her body heat for several weeks. The male owl is the family provider, bringing back rodent, rabbits, even skunks for the female to share with their young.
Why do they nest so early in the year, at a time when it’s so cold and snowy that the mother owl sometimes wears a “snow hat” after a storm?
“Great horned owls are slow to become independent,” says Karla Bloem, executive director of the International Owl Center in Houston, Minn. “The juveniles don’t become independent of their parents until fall, although some become independent earlier and some mooch as long as possible.”
It takes many months for young owls to learn to listen for barely audible sounds in the dark, and then soar silently through the woods before dropping down to grasp a mouse or vole for dinner.
Owls aren’t nest builders, instead taking over a nest built the previous year by a hawk, crow, even a squirrel, or an owl pair will commandeer a tree snag, where a limb or part of the trunk has broken off.
They have feather tufts on the top of their heads that may look like ears, but whose purpose seems to be to make them look bigger to other owls, an intimidation factor.
Bloem has lived with a permanently injured great horned owl for more than 20 years and knows more about this species’ behavior than anyone else I can think of. Bloem and her extraordinary education bird, named Alice, have been great ambassadors for owls in general and great horned owls specifically. Many Minnesotans as well as visitors from around the world have met Alice at the International Festival of Owls, held annually in the small southeastern Minnesota city of Houston. In fact, the festival began as a celebration of Alice’s hatch day.
When I asked Bloem what stands out for her after all the years she’s been involved with Alice and in studying wild great horned owls, she pointed to an area of particular interest, owl vocalizations.
“The most amazing thing I’ve learned about them is that the nestlings can start hooting at two weeks of age, in their little squeaky voices,” she said. “They even use proper hooting posture (head forward and tail stubs up).”
Great horned owls spend six to eight months raising their brood and teaching survival skills, and this attention pays off in a high survival rate for the young owls. “In some areas there is an average 50% survival rate the first year, which is pretty good for birds,” Bloem says, adding that it can go even higher.
The helicopter parents of the owl world are on the job, something to think about as we walk through the woods in late winter.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at email@example.com.
Alice the owl
Alice was permanently injured in a fall from her nest when only three weeks old. After rehabilitation, she came to Karla Bloem at the International Owl Center, along with all the necessary permits from state and federal governments. For the next two decades Alice appeared at many events with Bloem as an ambassador for her species and owls in general. Arthritis caused her to retire in 2018 and she now happily splits her time between a nest basket in Bloem’s home and her outdoor enclosure. Learn more here: InternationalOwlCenter.org.
What: International Festival of Owls, with live owl programs, kids’ activities, owl nest box building, hooting contest, bus trip and much more.
When: March 6-8.
Where: Houston, Minn. Most events are at Houston High School with some at the Owl Center and other locations in town.
More info: festivalofowls.com.