The great horned owl is one of the most amazing animals of winter.
Mention rebirth and wildlife babies and new beginnings and most people probably think of spring. And mid- to late spring at that.
That’s with good reason.
Few species, though they mate in fall, give birth before then. Think white-tailed deer, for example. The rut, or breeding season, starts in October, hits its high point in early November and continues later into the month. But the peak of the fawning season doesn’t arrive until mid-May or later.
Then there are great horned owls.
Though not the largest owl species in North America – that distinction belongs to the great gray owl — they are big birds. They can stretch a bit over 24 inches from beak to tail and weigh more than five pounds, with a wingspan approaching five feet.
But what really sets them apart is how early they nest and how early their young appear.
Adults, thought to mate for life, breed between now and January. They then occupy a nest – not one they made, but one they took over, bully-style, from crows, herons, hawks or squirrels – or a tree cavity.
A month or so later the female will lay one to four 2-inch-long eggs, on average, in what will be her only clutch of the year.
That means, of course, the young owls enter the world in the dead of winter. They hardly seem prepared for it. They are born with closed eyes, pink skin and just the tiniest bit of white down on their upper parts.
In other words, helpless.
This is a species built to handle the cold, however.
“Its feathers are exceptionally soft, providing superb insulation and allowing for silent flight. Females are able to maintain their eggs at incubating temperature near 37 degrees celsius, even when the ambient temperature is more than 70 degrees colder,” say the experts at Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.
Young great horned owls mature fast, too. Within five to six weeks they tentatively leave the nest to explore, and a few weeks later are flying.
If that seems a pretty quick turnaround – just a few months from egg laying to flying — it actually works out. The young great horned owls are ready to commence learning their lessons in being a predator right when many other species are giving birth and therefore at their most abundant.
Young owls may stay with their parents through October. But by winter, they’ve had months to prepare for being on their own.
It certainly works for the owls.
According to the National Audubon Society, great horned owls are widespread and, for the most part, still common all across the continent.
That’s in part due to their fierce, aggressive natures. Sometimes called “tiger owls” or “tigers of the sky,” they have the most diverse diet of any North American raptor. They eat everything from scorpions to skunks, rabbits to rats, geese to groundhogs and ducks to doves.
They snag it all any which way they can, too.
“Although they are usually nocturnal hunters,” Cornell says, “great horned owls sometimes hunt in broad daylight. After spotting their prey from a perch, they pursue it on the wing over woodland edges, meadows, wetlands, open water, or other habitats. They may walk along the ground to stalk small prey around bushes or other obstacles.”
Little escapes their attention.
Great horned owls, says the Nature Conservancy, have excellent hearing. They can pick out the sound of a mouse squeaking up to 900 feet – three football fields — away.
And when they grab something to eat, they hold on tight. Their large talons are capable of exerting about 30 pounds of force.
Because they aren’t picky eaters, they find food all over, in a variety of habitats.
That’s not what scientists previously thought. As recently as a few decades ago, the Pennsylvania Game Commission said great horned owls did best – and lived almost exclusively – on heavily forested land, large woodlots and remote wilderness areas.
“Horned owls aren’t often found in populated areas, apparently needing solitude for nesting,” reads some now-decades old agency information.
More recently, ornithologists determined the owls are extremely adaptable.
In Ohio, for example, great horned owls actually avoid extensive forested areas, according to the state’s Division of Wildlife. Instead, they prefer “open farmlands where numerous woodlots are interspersed among the agricultural fields.”
Officials with New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation add they use every available space, being common even in urban and suburban areas. It’s why they’re distributed all across the state.
There’s no mistaking seeing one.
From the 2-inch feathered tufts atop their heads – their “horns” – to their large, round bright yellow eyes, they are striking animals.
And this is perhaps the best time of year to go looking for and more particularly listening for them.
Throughout much of the year, adults are largely quiet and sedentary during the day. But over the next month or two, adults can sometimes be heard engaging in a deep, soft hooting pattern.
“During courtship, the male and female will often perform a duet of calls,” says the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
A bit later this winter, adults will shriek loudly if crows or some other bird or mammal gets too close to the nest that they themselves stole earlier. And as spring approaches, owlets, when hungry, often emit impatient, piercing screams.
But all of that action gets its start now. Take a dusk hike and it’s possible to hear the earliest breeding bird in the winter woods starting its species’ life cycle anew.
The winter woods, a time and place of rebirth. Who knew?
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