It’s dating season for Great-horned owls — have you heard the hooting?
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“Stop! There is an owl under the sagebrush,” my grandson, Brandon, said as I was slowly driving along a primitive road north of Mud Lake last week. As I stopped the owl struggled to lift off as it had a cottontail rabbit in its talons but could only fly a few feet before it landed.
The Great-horned owl laid its “horns” flat as it tried to stare me down as it adjusted the dead rabbit in its grasp. As soon as the supper was adjusted, the owl took flight into the dense thicket to enjoy the still warm meal.
Brandon and I continued to look for deer to photograph and also found a pair of Great-horns already paired up for the approaching breeding season in a thicket of Russian olive bushes.
A few days later, I visited the Warm Slough area on the Henrys Fork of the Snake River and hiked through the tall mature cottonwood finding two pair of the large night hunters. Another pair was located near the South Fork of the Teton River near Teton Lakes Golf links.
It is the time for super charged hooting to begin as the singles begin to announce their availability to keep their DNA in the owl gene pool.
Some Great Horned owls pair up as early as December with February and March being the time when they select an old hawk or magpie nests to raise their family in. They do not build their own nest, but usually flatten out old nests and start nesting by the end of March. Spring snows often will cover a sitting female as she protects the eggs from the cold.
Once a female starts sitting, the work load of the male doubles as he will supply her with food. For over a month the female will set until two or three fuzz balls will emerge from the eggs. Then both adults are required to hunt as the owlets grow rapidly. I have seen a jack rabbit and feral cat carcass draped across a limb so the owlets will have plenty to eat.
Great Horned owls are opportunistic feeders and hunt almost any living thing including other owls, cats and small dogs.
Rabbits are the preferred prey of the Great Horned even though they will feed of over 30 different species of animals and birds. If birds are brought to the nest, they are usually plucked by the adults before being delivered.
Like all birds of prey, Great Horned owls use their powerful feet to kill their prey. Their grip is believed to be the most powerful of any bird of prey in North America. Owls cannot digest feather, hair or bones. These things are regurgitated as a pellet or “fur ball” about the size of a jumbo olive or a moose dropping. These pellets can be found under trees where the nests are found. I remember dissecting these pellets in high school to discover what the owls had been feeding on.
The Great-horned rival the Great Grey owls as the largest of the owls with their territory covering most of North, Central and parts of South America.
With a four to five foot wingspan, they look large and fierce even though they weigh only two to four pounds. The females are larger than the males by about 20 percent.
The coloring of the Great Horned owls can vary from reddish brown to a gray or almost black with white undersides. Most of them in Southeastern Idaho are gray to light tan with an almost white one at the Camas National Wildlife Refuge. Their eyes appear to be much larger than they actually are because of the orange- buff radiating feathers around the yellow eyes.
If you live near a grove of mature evergreens or cottonwoods, the hooting of dating owls will soon disturb your sleep. It will only be a month or two of interruptions as all will quiet down after the setting begins and their nightly conversations will end.