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Great Horned Owls Courting

1-22-15  great horned owl IMG_5973The intense hooting of Great Horned Owls begins in late December or early January, about a month before actual mating takes place. Males call during most seasons of the year, but the period when the males are hooting vigorously lasts for a month or six weeks. During the mating season the deep, rich tones of the males are occasionally interspersed with the higher and huskier notes of the females. The answering calls of the females are heard for only a week or two, toward the end of the six-week period.

Eventually, when a male and female approach each other, they do a sort of courtship “dance.” The male cocks his tail, swells his white bib (see photo), and with much bobbing and jerking utters a series of deep sonorous calls that elicit calling responses by the female. He cautiously approaches the female, continuing much tail-bobbing and posturing. The owls nod, bow, and spread their wings as well as shake their heads. Courting pairs have been observed engaging in high-pitched giggling, screaming, and bill-snapping. Mutual bill rubbing and preening also occurs. Copulation concludes the courtship ritual, with both owls hooting at a rate of 4 or 5 hoots per second throughout copulation, which lasts 4 – 7 seconds. (Photo: Great Horned Owl, in captivity)

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9 responses

  1. Cecilia Marchetti

    Are they heard only at night? Are they likely to be in Maine (I live near the coast and haven’t seen/heard them, but I’m a relative newcomer)?

    January 23, 2015 at 8:17 am

    • Hi Cecilia,
      Great horned owls are found throughout Maine, but they are not common, so it’s not surprising if you haven’t heard one. Most of their calling takes place just after sunset, and just before sunrise. They roost during the day, and are pretty strictly nocturnal.

      January 23, 2015 at 8:29 am

  2. Penny March

    Cornell has a new owl cam from GA. She is on 2 eggs which should hatch this month. They are a bit ahead of us.

    January 23, 2015 at 8:40 am

  3. Kate Wilcox

    Does this happen late night like much of their activity?

    Thanks, Kate

    January 23, 2015 at 8:44 am

    • The one copulation observation I’ve read about took place about an hour after sunset, Kate.

      January 23, 2015 at 9:04 am

  4. They are pretty big birds – I’ve only seen one once while living here and was amazed at its size.

    January 23, 2015 at 6:36 pm

  5. Vikke Jas

    Hi Mary, my aunt ran a federal rehab center for raptors and she had a resident GHO who had imprinted and could not be released, spent its life working with hunter safety courses and school groups, etc. Every year, about this time, it would start a special greeting with my aunt who was the only one who could handle the GHO without body armor and a large helmet. I could feed it, as it recognized me, but it would not let me handle it. It would clack its bill across her fingers (she wore silver and turquoise rings on each finger), and bow repeatedly with wings spread wide, with the same giggling high pitched wild call, nodding its head.. It would climb onto her shoulder and rub its head gently against hers (although she had to have a long disused saddle bag across her shoulders). This GHO lived a long life and died of natural causes, never knowing that its mate was indeed of the wrong species…

    January 24, 2015 at 3:51 pm

    • What a wonderful story, Vikke! I love the head rubbing and giggling call!

      January 24, 2015 at 5:09 pm

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