This time of year, most birds are simply trying to stay warm and well-fed, but one chooses this odd time to begin its nesting season. By late January, Great Horned Owl pairs have found a hollow in a tree or the messy leftover nest of a crow or hawk, and laid eggs which it will incubate through the cold (or not-so-cold) of winter.
Several times over the last couple of months, late at night, I’ve discerned the low hooting of a Great Horned Owl. I was quite pleased. The “who cooks for you” call of the Barred Owl seems ever present, but that of a Great Horned is far less common. Seeing them is even trickier. I’ve seen them high in some pines bordering a golf course in New York, and perched low in a roadside tree amid the wide open stretches of Colorado’s San Luis Valley—two years in a row, in fact—but that’s all I can remember.
Therefore, I had the impression that they were somehow uncommon, but that is not the case at all. These large owls are common year-round residents of the area, and of the entirety of North America, for that matter. In abundance and versatility, they can be seen as the nocturnal counterpart to another ubiquitous raptor, the Red-tailed Hawk. They range from the Arctic treeline down through the continent’s woodland, farmland, suburbia, and deserts, into the rainforests of South America.
Still, it is easy to go a long time without encountering one. Late one night, I stepped outside to hear the owl better. Supposedly they call the most from dusk until midnight and again before dawn, but these were the wee hours after midnight, and the owl was going strong. The call is deep and resonant, all on the same pitch, usually ending on two slow syllables: hoo-h’h’hoo-hoo-hoo. This individual was very loud and close, but their call is also soft enough to blend into the background. Last winter, walking at dusk, I heard one that was barely distinguishable from the wind.
One early field guide, written by Mabel Osgood Wright in the 1890s, accused the Great Horned Owl of suggesting “every form of dark emotion by its voice.” What I heard reverberating under the clear late October sky was thrilling. Some of the middle notes were tremulous and fluttery, of a rich tonal quality. This must have been the male calling, because I learned that the female’s voice box is smaller, and therefore its call comes out higher pitched and less resonant. Another owl began to respond then, slightly farther away, presumably the female.
When most birds are winding down for the year, the Great Horned begins gearing up for its breeding season in late fall. The young of the previous year have only recently parted from the parents, dispersed to new areas, but the adults stay put. The great horned is non-migratory, though some birds in northern areas may wander south in the winter. While the males hoot all year long, in late fall they begin to advertise their territories. This area should appeal to them for its combination of both woods and open farmland.
Not that this owl has any problem adapting. Reading its diet is like taking a tour of the animal kingdom. Rabbits, rodents, birds, and skunks are supplemented with insects, fish, and reptiles. More adventurous choices include the occasional porcupine and house cat. The birds it takes go well beyond small songbirds. Ducks are common fare, but incredibly, this owl is also capable of preying on crows, other large raptors like Osprey and falcons, and other owls — birds that generally go unmolested. Not surprisingly, adult Great Horned Owls have no natural predators, but territorial disputes with others of their own species can lead to death.
Historically, when it was popular to cast moral judgments on other species, the Great Horned Owl’s robust predatory nature turned public opinion against it. The aforementioned field guide author called it a “savage Owl” that destroyed “vast quantities of game-birds.” A promotional book about Alabama from 1941 wrote that “largest and fiercest of the owl family…is the great horned owl that feeds mostly upon small animals, birds, and reptiles but frequently varies its fare with Poultry from the barnyard.”
By contrast, the book cites Barn Owls as “valuable to the farmer because they feed almost entirely upon small rodents that injure crops.” Predators were only tolerated if they were useful to humans. For some reason, the Red-tailed Hawk, which took plenty of poultry and game birds, was spared because “it also destroys large numbers of mice, rats, and snakes and so merits protection.” Though the Great Horned also ate small pests, it was often enough seen by farmers as a pest species itself, and was heavily hunted until the mid-twentieth century.
Great Horned Owls may still experience some illegal hunting, but fortunately, the hoot of an owl resounding on a cold, still night now stirs something more appreciative in us.