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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

February 1999

A great horned owl finds winter no obstacle to romance. © ClickArt, T/Maker Co., Broderbund Software, Inc.
Be my valentine? © ClickArt, T/Maker Co., Broderbund Software, Inc

Winter romance

Great horned owls spark on frigid nights.

by Anita Carpenter

Cold, clear, bone-chilling days. Long, frigid nights. Howling winds. Drifting snow cover. Not ideal conditions for raising a family out-of-doors. Yet great horned owls defy all our rules of comfort.

After most creatures have either migrated south or hibernated to avoid the shortage of food and the perils of winter, great horned owls, Bubo virginianus, have love on their minds.

Normally solitary, the birds begin to call each other shortly after dusk and again before dawn, beginning in late November and continuing into December. Their mellow whoo-whoo, whoo, whoo-whooo's resonate like foghorns through the woods. Lower hoots are males returning the calls.

As winter deepens and the pair bond is sealed, great horned owls set up housekeeping. They find a big cavity, take over an old crow or heron's nest, or appropriate a red-tailed hawk's nest, much to the chagrin of the homecoming hawks. The owls just use what they claim, rarely repairing or enhancing the nest site.

From late January into February, the female, the larger member of the pair, lays from one to three, but most often two, white eggs. She begins to brood immediately after the first egg is laid, so it won't freeze.

Time tests her fortitude, for she alone incubates the eggs for more than a month, hunkered down on a nest, exposed to all of winter's insults. During brooding, her attentive mate presents her with a steady diet of rabbits, meadow voles, and mice.

On calmer, warmer days, she may rise up and gaze with lemon-yellow eyes on the world around her. Nothing escapes her notice as she huddles for 35 lonely days on a stick nest high up in a tree.

Is it necessary for great horned owls to nest so much earlier than other birds? Yes. Unlike robins, which incubate eggs for 12 days and fledge their young in another two weeks, great horned owls watch over their owlets for months. Six weeks after hatching, the young birds test their wings, but they do not yet try to fly. Twelve weeks after hatching, the owlets fly but they are still fed by their parents well into July.

Immature great horned owl. © R.J. & Linda Miller
Great horned owlet.

© R.J. & Linda Miller

Although parental attention starts to wane, the family remains together into autumn when the young either leave or are driven off by the adults.

If you're interested in seeing a great horned owl, February is the month to search the countryside. Bare trees make it easier to locate the large, bulky, nests, which may seem unoccupied, but look carefully for two ear tufts rising just over the nest rim, a telltale sign that a great horned owl is in residence. Also look for a rounded lump in the center of the nest which may be the brown-feathered back of an incubating owl.

Take time to appreciate the stamina of this 3 pound owl. Although she is heavily insulated with layers of fluffy feathers, her exposure to frigid weather for so many days sends tingles down my spine. When bird watchers become chilled, we climb into the warmth of a heated car out of the wind and cold. Great horned owls aren't so fortunate. They endure the elements until warmer weather arrives.

Anita Carpenter explores winter wonders near her Oshkosh home.