Nesting season 2017 begins — for great horned owls

(Sharon Stiteler photo)

It’s the special cold time of year when North Country residents either hunker down under a blanket fort eating copious amounts of warm food from crockpots or brave the elements to go snowshoeing or ice fishing. Meanwhile, great horned owls associate cold nights with flirting and will soon begin incubating eggs.

Great horned owls are the earliest nester in the Upper Midwest, and right around late afternoon or dusk you should hear pairs hooting at one another. When you hear the stereotypical “hoot hoo-hoo-hoo-hoot hoooo hoooot,” listen and determine if one has a higher pitched hoot than the other. We can distinguish females from males by being a bit larger and having a higher-pitched hoot. If you hear hooting on a regular basis this time of year in your yard, chances are good that they are setting up a nesting territory nearby.

Great horned owls do not build their own nests; they take over old hawk and crow nests. They will sometimes use a large hollow in a tree, but some of the stranger places I’ve seen these owls nest include a large planter outside an office building in Florida. While conducting bald eagle nest surveys on the Mississippi River, we saw that a couple of owls took over unattended bald eagle nests. Sometimes eagles tolerate this and move on to other nests, and sometimes, per this video, they do not.

Why would any creature raise young in the dead of winter? For one thing, great horned owls are tough – with fluffy feathers to handle the cold. The young will hatch with thick down that also keeps them warm. And there’s an abundance of food for them to feed their young such as rabbits, squirrels, rats, mice, and don’t forget those giant winter crow roosts. They don’t rely on insects or fish, and there’s plenty for them to find.

If you hear hooting in your neighborhood, look for some tell-tale owl signs. They tend to stay in one spot during the day. Their poop can accumulate, and it resembles spilled white paint. If you see any pellets that they’ve regurgitated, look for any bones. Hawks and eagles rip prey apart and eat around the bones, and their digestive system can break down small bones. Owls tend to swallow their prey whole, so their pellets are chock-full of bones and skulls.

Look for any large, abandoned nests. Old hawk nests are big and have a disk-like shape. They are also made entirely of sticks. Squirrel nests look like large leafy meatballs. Great horned owls can use either, and if you scan these nests, watch for little tufts sticking out of the top. That’s the sure sign of an incubating female.

If you find an owl nest, stay clear. They rely on camouflage to hide from other predators during the day, mostly hawks. The nest typically falls apart before the young are fully-grown and ready to fly. This is so common that avian biologists call this the “brancher phase” where they use their large, strong talons to cling to branches until ready to fly.

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