Prepping for Parenthood and Spring
By Jeanne Henderson, Interpretive Naturalist
Long before the warm temperatures and sunny days of spring, resident great horned owls are preparing for parenthood. These birds are the “hoot owls” of Michigan, filling forests and backyards with deep, soft hoots as the monogamous pair communicates with each other and neighbors. They select a territory well before egg-laying, often roosting in the area for several months before working on their nest .Preferring to make use of a pre-existing next, they often adopt an abandoned crow, hawk or squirrel nest of find a tree cavity to get them started. Some pairs move right in, while others add a fresh lining of bark, leaves, feathers, fur or trampled owl pellets to prepare it for the eggs.
The female lays between one and four white, spherical eggs, usually during the month of February in this region. She will incubate the eggs for just over a month (30-37 days) while the male brings her food. Once the eggs hatch, both parents will spend the next several months feeding the owlets as they transition from nearly featherless pink chicks to well-feathered juveniles learning to hunt on their own. It takes six weeks from the time of hatching before the young are able to walk on branches around the nest and another three weeks before they learn to fly. Parental care can extend for months beyond that first flight as the young learn to hunt. During this time, the parents are providing food, teaching skills and protecting the young from predators.
Some scientists believe the early nesting of the parents helps match those first hunting adventures with the abundance of small mammals in the spring. Great horned owls are sit-and-wait predators, preferring to perch, look and listen for prey before silently descending upon it. Able to catch everything from tiny nice to large skunks and even other birds of prey, these owls are at the top of the food chain. Only when they are young or injured are they vulnerable to predators such as coyote, fox, crows or other birds of prey. Listen carefully as you enjoy the winter weather, you may have the opportunity to listen in on a great horned owl pair getting ready for spring.
Built to Hunt
- When spread out, a great horned owl foot can cover an area of 4 inches by 8 inches. Armed with sharp talons and incredible strength, these feet help owls tackle prey bigger than themselves including geese, opossums and other birds of prey.
- Silent flight allows owls to sneak up on their prey. Soft feathers with fringed edges break up the air flow over the wings, enabling them to approach undetected. Their short, wide wings help them steer through the trees in the forest as they hunt.
- Excellent hearing enables these owls to find small prey deep beneath the snow. Their facial feathers are arranged as a facial disc, directing sound to their ears. Owl ears are not directly across from each other, so they can pinpoint the locations of a sound. Not: the “horns” on the great horned owl are not ears, just feathers designed to break up their silhouette.
- Well adapted for nighttime hunting, owls have huge pupils that open widely in the dark, letting in as much light as possible. They also have a lot of rods, resulting in excellent vision in low light conditions. Due to their large eye size, owls are not able to move their eyeballs, but can rotate their heads more than 180 degrees in each direction.