For the Birds Radio Program: Owl of February
On Valentine’s Day, owls are thinking about romance. (3:48)
Ah, February’ The same frigid month that brought the coldest day on record to Minnesota is the month that brings our warmest, most romantic holiday, along with longer, brighter days than we’ve had for three months. Even the most urban among us notice increasing daylength as commuters turn their headlights off and children at school bus stops don’t have to wait in the dark anymore.
Birds are even more in tune with changing daylength than we, their hormones kicking in as days grow longer. Right now, chickadees are whistling their cheerful fee-bebe song to the rhythm of downy woodpeckers drumming their love. Of course, it’s still way too cold for chickadees and woodpeckers to start mating—for them, this is just spring training. But one group of birds really does start serious courting right around Valentine’s Day—owls. It’s sweet to think those “Hooo’ll be mine?” valentines inspire them, but the reason owls breed so early is much less romantic. They schedule early owlet production at least in part to allow their babies to develop hunting skills on inexperienced baby squirrels and rabbits. To produce young predators in time to capitalize on maximum numbers of baby mammals, even Minnesota owls lay their eggs in February and March.
To keep the eggs from freezing this time of year, females begin incubation as soon as the first egg is laid, so that first baby hatches out a day or two before the second baby, who hatches out a day or two before the third, and so on. Each baby owl in a brood is a different size from the others, making owl families look a bit like human families with children of different ages and sizes. But it takes a lot more luck to find a family of baby owls than people.
Because this is the month when owls start courting, this is the right time of year to go out at night to hoot and listen. Playing tape recordings of owl hoots often elicits responses, but it’s more fun, and somehow more sporting, to imitate owl calls with your own voice. The Northland has two fairly common “hoot owls.” The Great Horned Owl has a soft, mellow hoot that doesn’t follow any particular rhythm pattern, and the Barred Owl, generally found near river bottomlands, has a louder, higher-pitched, and more strident hoot that usually follows the pattern, Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?
The tinv Eastern Screech-Owl reaches its northern limit around the Twin Cities. If you’re down near tropical Minneapolis and are both lucky and in an area with large shade trees, you might hear one. Imitating screech owls is an art—whistling on one note with plenty of spit in your mouth produces a fairly credible screech owl trill, and many humans can also whistle a whinny good enough to get real screech owls to answer.
With their forward-facing eyes and round heads, owls are the most human-appearing of all birds. Their calls are also the most human-like, and they even sound like they’re saying the word Who. Getting an owl to answer our hoots, and possibly even glimpsing at an ethereal ghost of the night, is an experience you’ll long remember.
[Barred and screech owls actually wait until more like April to nest in Minnesota]