Birds in the Heartland: Great Horned Owl

By Lynette Anderson, Belwin Conservancy Naturalist
Photo by Peter K Burian.

Just past dusk and the air is brisk. Starlight begins to twinkle and the quiet of nighttime is at hand. A large shadow flies across the path and, into the silence, muffled and subdued, comes the low and resonant “Whooo-Whooo-Whoo” of the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus).

This sound elicits many emotions: awe, fear, excitement, apprehension, fascination, to name just a few. The owl holds many of us spellbound with its silent flight, large all-seeing eyes and mysterious nocturnal life.

Great Horned Owls, also called GHO's, are one of North America's most common birds. They are crepuscular creatures, flying low over prairies and meadows to hunt, returning to the safety of the forest to rest and raise a family.

Photo by Peter K Burian.

It is in January and February, when winter still holds sway over the landscape, that this mystical bird begins the task of finding a mate and laying eggs.

GHO's are typically monogamous and will use old stick nests from hawks or crows, or cavities in trees, as their home for the season.

They defend their territory with vigorous hooting just before egg laying begins, which makes the first two months of the year excellent times to go out and listen for those magical songs, also called “owling.”

These owls can lay 1-4 eggs, with incubation lasting 30-37 days. The young owlets are born in late February or early March, with closed eyes, pink skin and white down.

Photo by Gary M Stolz, USFWS.

Young owlets are slower to mature compared to hawks and can be heard giving their food begging calls well into September.

Great Horned Owls have been called the Tiger of the Woods in part because of their beautiful coloration but also because they are a fierce predator. They have been known to take down other raptors as well as woodchucks, meadow voles, rabbits and even skunks!

Did you know? Many owl species have asymmetrical ears that are different sizes and different heights on their heads. This gives the birds superior hearing and the ability to pinpoint by triangulation where prey is located, even if they can't see it. Flattened facial discs help funnel sounds to an owl's ears and magnify it as much as 10 times. Different owls have different facial disc shapes, which can help with identification. Owls have 14 cervical, or neck, vertebrae, twice as many as a mammal. This helps the owl to turn its head a total arc of 270 degrees to see in all directions. Owl eyes are extremely large, have big pupils and contain more rods than cones, which make night vision much easier. * Owls have three eyelids: one for blinking, one for sleeping and one for keeping the eye clean and healthy. The third eyelid is also called the nictitating membrane and many other birds also have it, including other raptors.

Now is the time to get out into the night of your neighborhood or into the local woodlot. Magic awaits in the mystery of the dark as well as starlight and the call of the owls.

You can hear Great Horned and Barred Owls close to dawn or dusk at the Stagecoach Prairie Natural Area, by Stations #2 and #5.

Hear a juvenile Great Horned Owl beg for food.

Hear a male Great Horned Owl calling a female.