Who’s that? Love is in the air for Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) which inhabit all of North America south from the arctic tree line and even into parts of South America. Within this huge range there are several subspecies, but all have those tufted “ears” and large, watchful, forward-facing eyes.
I’ve had the privilege over the past several years to have Great Horned Owls nest in a Santa Fe horse barn I visit frequently giving me the opportunity to watch the adult birds raise fledglings.
GHOs are among the earliest birds to nest in this area, pairing as early as December and nesting around Valentine’s Day. Although they spend most of the year apart, the same adult birds often rejoin as a mating couple and nest in the same territory year after year. Both male and female birds are vocal and will call to each other during courtship. An infatuated male will droop his wings, lean forward, and stick his tail straight up while hooting to his mate–looking rather chicken-like rather than his usual regal self. Ah, what we do for love!
Females are slightly larger than males (10-20%) with lengths around 20-22″ and wingspans twice that. Nests are rudimentary or birds sometimes use vacant hawk nests. Two or three eggs are usual and the hatched birds are covered in fluffy, white down. Chicks leave the nest well before they can fly and walk along branches, fences, or barn beams. They are remarkable climbers at this stage which can last a week or two before flight begins.
“Flying tigers” are ferocious predators. They have thick, strong legs and incredibly fearsome feet. It is startling to look up and see the huge bird silently fly overhead. The secret is in the feathers: unlike other birds, owl wing feathers have a soft, “fringed” leading edge which dissipates the sound and allows the bird to make ninja-like approaches to prey. They are almost tender when presenting these morsels to their chicks in the nest.
So celebrate Valentine’s Day like a Great Horned Owl and give your sweetie a hoot!