Contrary to its name, the great horned owl has no horns! It is named for the tufts of feathers that sit on top of its head, called plumicorns. Scientists don’t know why these owls sport the tufts, but they do have a few theories. The tufts might help members of their own species to recognize each other among the forest around them, or they may use the tufts to blend into their surroundings. Making them look more like broken tree branches than a tasty meal.
The great horned owl is widespread and one of the most common owls in North America, found in a range of habitats that includes treed areas like forests, woodlands and shrublands. For those of us who live in Boundary County, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the deep, soft, stuttering hoots of this owl: hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo. This owl uses his hoot to advertise its territory. It can also make a variety of other sounds, including whistles, barks, shrieks, hisses, coos and wavering cries.
They hunt by perching or gliding slowly, high above the ground. When they spot prey, they dive down to the ground with wings folded. The prey is usually killed instantly when grasped by the owl’s large, curved talons.
Great horned owls are mainly nocturnal, but they also hunt during the day in the wintertime. They eat rodents, rabbits, squirrels, skunks, and various birds such as geese, grouse, ducks and pigeons. They sometimes eat fish, large insects and scavenge road-killed animals.
Since great horned owls swallow their smaller prey whole, they have to regurgitate “owl pellets” containing the parts that won’t pass through their digestive systems without doing damage. These pellets are small white packages that fit in your palm, dropped wet onto the ground from a tree branch where the owl was sitting. Sometimes there’s a streak of whitewash down the side of a tree or on some leaves, indicating where one has fallen. When they are dry, they can be opened, and at least some of what the resident owl has eaten recently can be deduced from the contents. Teeth and a variety of small bones that look like parts from an old typewriter might be present. There might be a swatch of fur, even a set of bird’s feet clutching the air as if reaching for a branch.
The great horned owl generally mates for life, beginning at two years of age. They have large territories which they both defend from others of their species. The territories need to be large to provide an adequate hunting area.
These fierce predators are also great parents. Paired great horned owls tend not to build their own nests. Instead they nest in the abandoned stick nests of another bird, on cliffs or occasionally even in hollow trees. Nesting occurs early in the spring, typically when the snow is still on the ground. The owls find a new nest each year since the young are so active that they virtually destroy their nests.
The female typically lays a clutch of 2 to 3 eggs each year (though it can be anywhere from 1 to 5 eggs). The male and female take turns sitting on the eggs (incubating) for about one month. Baby great horned owls are ready to fly at between 10 and 12 weeks old.
The great horned owl’s only natural enemy is other great horned owls, though occasionally other birds may try to get their eggs. The owl does not migrate although they may wander in search of prey.
The oldest great horned owl on records was at least 28 years old when it was found in Ohio in 2005.
Life is a hoot, so be whoo you are!
If you are interested in owls, the Friends of Kootenai Wildlife Refuge are sponsoring an owl walk at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24 at the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters.