A Valentine's Day Look at Great Horned Owls
Published: Feb. 14, 2005 in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News Reproduced with permission of the Daily News
By Charlie Powell
For the next couple of weeks, sensing one of nature's wonders is as close as a walk around the block.
The great horned owl is very common and lives among us in the trees of our towns and campuses. This time of year, Valentine's Day, they seek each other out for courtship and perpetuation of the species.
Actually, the breeding season runs from about mid-January through February, but recalling Valentine's Day is both simple and heartwarming.
White settlers didn't see this bird until they landed in Virginia. Native Americans had known and revered its coexistence for centuries. Because of the settlers, the scientific name Bubo virginianus was applied.
For those who don't know, Virginia and hence the owl were given the moniker in honor of Queen Elizabeth I, also known as the "virgin queen." Just imagine if today we named things after the alleged sexual history of elected officials. Why, we might even have the Philanderers Freeway, but I digress.
On a still evening in the Palouse, one can take a walk and listen carefully for pairs of owls calling to each other. Their call is a loud series of hoots, the basis for the classic call of any owl in popular representation. This is a great opportunity for kids and one they will remember for the rest of their lives. They might even use such a walk as young adults to ask another to join them in marriage.
Going out while the sky is still light can sometimes reveal males and females bowing to each other with drooped wings. If they are really far along, you might even witness bill rubbing and preening or maybe even rejection or challenge by another suitor. From here, that's about where the romance ends for this aggressive and opportunistic predator. The great horned owl is solitary staying with its mate only during the breeding season.
The pair don't build their own nest either. Instead they will squat the nests of other birds such as hawks, ravens, and herons. They may also use squirrel nests after dining on the squirrels. They prefer hollow trees (again another classic representation of owls), little caves, clumps of vegetation, abandoned buildings, or other platforms or perches.
By the way, in addition to the call and the hollow trees, roosting in abandoned buildings by owls has been the basis for another classic reference - ghosts. When disturbed by people, they can swoop down with light colored wings in a darkened building nearly brushing one's head. People will swear they've seen, heard, and felt a cold rush as a ghost chased them out.
As for that challenge mentioned above, great horned owls are extremely aggressive. They eat almost everything that lives and they will defend a nest they decide is theirs until the former resident or an intruder is killed or driven off.
A clutch is normally two to four eggs. Females incubate them for 26-35 days. In six to seven weeks, the young will roam near the nest. When they walk on branches adjacent to tree nests, they are called "branchers." They can't usually fly until they are nine or 10 weeks old.
Mom will feed the little freeloaders for a while longer, then she kicks them out to find their own territory in autumn. Their journey has been tracked for more than 150 miles in some cases.
While owls are solitary as mentioned above, they also are territorial. Territories have been observed to be used and maintained by the same pair for up to eight consecutive years. The average range for a pair is about one square mile.
This owl hunts by perching and watching for prey or by gliding slowly through the air. When they spot a meal, they dive with wings folded, before snatching it. They usually kill prey very quickly with large, sharp talons. Their wings can generate great force so they often will attack prey up to three times their own weight. This killing machine has also been observed walking on the ground to catch small prey or even wading in water after frogs and fish. They have been seen walking calmly into a chicken coop to take birds.
Some small mammals are swallowed whole. Other animals are carried off and dismembered. Birds taken as prey are often plucked first by these bold fowl. In all, great horned owls have been known to kill and consume more than 250 different species. And yes, they will eat your cat.
After locating that pair of owls on your Valentine's Day stroll, go back the next day. Search beneath the perch where you heard them and you'll likely find owl pellets.
Pellets are the regurgitated, indigestible remains of its prey. Regurgitation is normal and occurs about twice to three times a day. The pellet itself is very large, about three to four inches long and an inch and a half in diameter. They are very compact and grey to black in color.
Take a couple of dry ones home and soak them in warm water. I assure you, it will hold a kid's fascination for hours to see what's inside. Sometimes a whole skull will emerge.
Alas, poor Yorick the rodent! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.
Charlie Powell is a public information officer for the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine.