For the Birds Radio Program: Great Horned Owl

Original Air Date: March 31, 1989

Today Laura Erickson talks about the most common owl of the Northland, the Great Horned Owl. (3:59)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Great Horned Owl)

Great Horned Owls are nesting now. They’re the only large owl with ear tufts, and so they’re easy to recognize by shape. In winter people often see very white large owls with ear tufts—these are not Snowy Owls, but rather the Arctic subspecies of the Great Horned Owl.

They usually nest in abandoned crow, hawk, eagle, or heron nests, and occasionally a squirrel leaf nest. There are also records of them nesting in tree cavities, and even on the ground. Males and females take turns incubating the 2 or 3 white eggs, which take about a month to hatch. These fierce avian killing machines start life as voracious but fairly helpless chicks. The eggs are incubated from the day the first one is laid, so that egg hatches days before the rest—the oldest chick is bigger than the others, and in years when food is scarce, is the only one to survive.

Baby Great Horned Owls often jump or fall out of their nests before they’re five or six weeks old, though they won’t be able to fly until they’re over two months old. Once they land on the ground, they’re too clumsy and heavy to get back up in a tree, but since this happens all the time in the world of Great Horned Owls, the parents are perfectly happy feeding them on the ground.

The parents bring them any and every piece of meat they can hunt down—from the tiniest shrews to large rabbits and snowshoe hares, and even birds as large as Canada Geese. The flight of Great Horned Owls is too labored and slow for catching flying birds, but they are quite adept at striking at so called sitting ducks. One of the biggest problems the Peregrine Falcon Reintroduction Project has faced has been these owls—they sit silently throughout the day watching where large birds go to roost, and then kill them in their sleep. That explains why jays, crows, ravens, and birds of prey attack Great Horned Owls, trying to drive them away before nightfall. The best way to see an owl is to check out the scene when jays and crows are making a ruckus.

The fact that large birds so readily mob owls may explain why baby owls look nothing at all like their parents—they look like big, comical monsters. When frightened, they make hissing sounds and pull their wings over their head to appear larger and more threatening. If you ever come upon a baby owl, don’t pick it up—its talons are already extremely sharp, and its parents wouldn’t think twice about sticking their own huge talons into your back or even your head to protect it.

Although the adult owls are among the fiercest of all birds when hunting, they’re gentle with their young. The babies stay with them for a long time—some reports indicate that they follow their parents around for over 6 months, well after they can hunt for themselves. The young owls don’t hoot—they have a blood-curdling scream instead.

This time of year adult owls are hooting a lot. Both the male and female hoot—ornithologists haven’t quite settled the issue of which one has the deeper voice. Some argue that the female must because she’s larger, and thus has a larger, more resonant voice box, but others, perhaps more anthropomorphically, argue that it just makes sense that the male has the deeper voice. My own theory is that they’re both wrong—who’s to say that owls can’t each have their own unique voice range regardless of sex–like, say, Tiny Tim, Ann Jillian, or Bobby McFerrin.

(Recording of a Great Horned Owl)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”