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Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owls Courting & Mating

Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest species of birds to breed in the Northeast. Their intense hooting 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 typically 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.

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Great Horned Owl Nestlings About To Fledge

5-17-19 great horned owls_U1A8938Great Horned Owls do not build their own nests, though they may provide some lining to an existing cavity or nest. Snags, cliffs and man-made structures provide nesting sites, but most commonly Great Horned Owls use the tree nests of other species such as hawks (especially Red-tailed) crows, ravens and squirrels. Most, but not all, nests are used for only one season. Pictured is a Great Blue Heron nest that has been usurped by a Great Horned Owl family – a feat achieved by the owls claiming the nest as early as February, prior to the return of herons.

After incubating her eggs for roughly a month, the female Great Horned Owl then broods her young for two to three weeks. The father’s role consists of bringing food to the female while she is incubating and brooding. She then tears the food up into bite-size pieces for the nestlings.

When the nestlings no longer need the heat their mother’s body provides, brooding ends but the mother stays with her nestlings until they fledge at about seven weeks of age. (Pictured: Great Horned Owl mother and two downy nestlings, roughly six weeks old. Thanks to Marc Beerman for photo op.)

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A True Mystery Photo

11-2-18 flying squirrel tails_U1A1190A discovery recently brought to my attention has stumped this naturalist.   What you are looking at is a collection of Flying Squirrel tails lying within a 30-square-foot patch of ground adjacent to a stand of Eastern Hemlocks. For several days in succession, additional tails appeared each morning, eventually totaling 20 or more.

Flying Squirrels, both Northern and Southern, are part of many animals’ diet.  Among the documented predators are Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, Screech Owls, Northern Goshawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Martens, River Otters, Weasels, Fishers, Red Foxes and Bobcat.  Many of these animals can gain access to the trees where the Flying Squirrels reside.  Others take advantage of squirrels foraging on the ground.

The puzzling part of this mystery is the large number of tails.  In cold weather (usually in winter, but we’ve had below-freezing nights recently), Flying Squirrels huddle together in tree cavities in an attempt to provide themselves with added warmth.  Did a foraging Fisher discover a communal den?  How did it manage to capture so many squirrels?  Did the survivors remain in the same cavity, only to be captured in subsequent nights?  So many questions that this naturalist cannot answer. Perhaps a reader can! (Thanks to John Quimby and Michael O’Donnell, who kindly shared their fascinating discovery with me.)

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Great Horned Owls & Striped Skunks

2-16-17-great-horned-owl-289

Striped Skunks do have predators other than Great Horned Owls (bobcats, foxes and coyotes-fishers have been known to prey on skunks, but very infrequently), but these predators have to be pretty desperate before they will prey on a skunk.  Automobiles and disease kill more skunks than all of their predators put together, but Great Horned Owls have the distinction of being the primary predator of Striped Skunks.

Being a nocturnal hunter, a Great Horned Owl necessarily consumes prey which are nocturnal. Striped Skunks are active at night and are consumed by Great Horned Owls with regularity, even though a skunk can weigh up to three times as much as a Great Horned Owl (average GHO weighs a little over 3 pounds) and has a potent way of defending itself.

For many years scientists assumed that birds had a poor sense of smell because the area of a bird’s brain involved in smell is relatively small compared with the area found in mammals.  However, recent research reveals that birds have a high number of active genes that are associated with smell, and many species may have an excellent sense of smell.  It’s fairly safe to assume, however, from its consumption of skunks, that the Great Horned Owl’s sense of smell is not very well developed. In addition, if a skunk sprays, much of the odor is absorbed by the Great Horned Owl’s leg feathers, which extend down to its talons.

A favorite memory of mine is walking through a field at dusk and suddenly noticing a strong skunk-like smell coming from above, not below, me. A Great Horned Owl silently flew overhead, with only the tell-tale smell of a recently-captured skunk announcing its presence.

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Porcupine Preyed Upon By Coyotes

2-15-16 dead porcupine  086Coyote tracks from several directions coalesced in a spot where the frozen skin of a porcupine lay. There was not one morsel of flesh, and next to no bone, left inside the skin, which had partially been turned inside out.  Inspection of the porcupine’s head confirmed the likelihood that coyotes were responsible, as fishers, notable porcupine predators, kill their prey by repeatedly attacking a porcupine’s head, and the head of this porcupine was unscathed (see insert). The only other possible predators would be a bobcat or a great horned owl, and there were no signs of either present. While it is possible that the porcupine died a natural death and opportunistic coyotes took advantage of an easy meal, it appeared to be in good condition, and thus it is equally or more likely that coyotes succeeded in gaining access to the porcupine’s vulnerable, quill-less belly, and successfully attacked and ate it.

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Great Horned Owl Fledglings Still Being Fed By Parents

great horned owls-first year IMG_1616Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest nesting birds — you can find them on nests in January, February and March, even in northern New England. Eggs are incubated for about a month, typically in March or April with young usually hatching in May or June. The nestlings remain in the nest for six or seven weeks before fledging. Unable to fly until they are ten or twelve weeks old, the fledglings follow their parents around and continue to be fed and cared for by their parents until fall. In late summer, when they have fledged but are still begging their parents for food, you can hear their distinctive calls. To know what to listen for, go to http://langelliott.com/mary-holland/great-horned_owl.mp3 (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com & miracleofnature.org.)

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Great Horned Owlets Soon To Fledge

great horned owl 454Great Horned Owls are said to have a wider range of nest sites than any other bird in the Americas. Most commonly they use tree nests of other species, particularly Red-tailed Hawks as well as other hawks, crows, ravens, herons (Great Blue Heron nest pictured), and squirrels.

These month-old young owls have grown rapidly, from a weight of roughly an ounce at birth to about two pounds. They will weigh approximately 2 1/2 pounds when they fledge. By six weeks of age, young Great Horned Owls are climbing out of the nest and perching on nearby branches, and by seven weeks they are taking short flights.

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