This week's "Bird of the Week" is the Great horned owl. The Great horned owl is one of the most widespread and common owls in North America. It is not often seen because it is nocturnal, meaning that it hunts at night. It will sit on a perch watching for prey, and then fly out to catch it. It mostly eats small mammals, rabbits, skunks, some amphibians and reptiles, some birds, and even other owls. Small prey is swallowed whole, while larger prey is carried away and riped apart at feeding perches or at the nest.
Great Horned Owls can vary in color from a reddish brown to a grey or black and white. The underside is a light grey with dark bars and a white band of feathers on the upper breast. They have large, staring yellow-orange eyes, bordered in most races by an orange-buff facial disc. The name is derived from tufts of feathers that appear to be "horns" which are sometimes referred to as "ear tufts" but have nothing to do with hearing at all. The large feet are feathered to the ends of the toes, and the immature birds resemble the adults. Females are 10 to 20% larger than males.
Great horned owls have a large repertoire of sounds, ranging from deep booming hoots to shrill shrieks. The males resonant territorial call "hoo-hoo hoooooo hoo-hoo" can be heard over several miles during a still night. Both sexes hoot, but males have a lower-pitched voice than females.
Nesting season for Great horned owls begins in January or February when the males and females hoot to each other. Listen for their hooting at night. I heard a Great horned owl hooting around midnight somewhere in my neighborhood three nights ago!
The best way of locating an owl is to let the other birds do it for you! When you hear a group of crows "cawing" madly, follow the crows and you may find a hawk or an owl. This "mobbing" technique is used by other, smaller birds, too.
Bird Note is a series of radio shows about birds. To listen to a show about the Great horned owl, click on this link.
Photos from All About Birds and National Geographic.