February, 05, 2009
The dead of winter is the season of love, if you happen to be a great horned owl. In late January, when it would seem to our weary eyes that there could be neither sign nor expectation of spring, solitary owls are seeking each other. In the hours after dark and again before dawn, their deep-throated hoots echo far and wide, for their territories are large and they hunt alone. Great horned owls reunite only to breed, and their dark music and preening display have a terrible beauty. These birds are the dragons of their kind.
Bubo virginianus is a ferocious predator, an evolutionary marvel that can take down prey several times its body weight. A generalist that can hunt from the ground as well as the air, it has at least 253 identified prey species across North America, including domestic dogs and cats, fish, snakes, porcupines, carrion, scorpions, swans, small alligators and every other smaller owl. It wades into water after frogs and walks into chicken coops. I once had the eerie experience of playing the call of the northern saw-whet owl out over a darkened swamp and attracting the great horned instead.
They are equally adept at finding suitable habitat: from deserts and dark forests to open country and city parks. They make no nests of their own but claim those made by others. They will breed in squirrel drays or heron rookeries, in caves or empty buildings. They defend territories up to a square mile in size against all comers, and they have few natural enemies aside from rival great horned owls and the occasional goshawk or peregrine that resists the takeover of its nesting site. William Blake could have just as easily written “The Tyger” for this deadly night stalker, and trembled to think “What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
While great horned owls are vulnerable to death from human causes — including road kills, electrocution, and poaching — their numbers have also increased with our assistance. They have more prey available thanks to the skunks and raccoons that eat our garbage and the squirrels and pigeons that thrive in the built environment. Their young disperse widely after they are weaned, traveling as far as 150 miles in search of territories of their own and finding them even in developed settings.
As I am not considered their prey, I shiver with delight and not fear when I hear the owls calling. To me, that call is the very first harbinger of life returning. Sometimes I go owling myself and join in the chorus, drawing them in. It is well that they keep to themselves, however. A flock of these owls would be terrible to behold.
Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com. He and Fred Baumgarten write Nature’s Notebook on alternating weeks.
© Copyright 2009 by TCExtra.com
Top of Page
Email this article
Printer friendly page