The largest of our resident owls is the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus).
A large bird, with a wingspan which may reach nearly five feet, it strikes silently in the night at its unsuspecting prey.
Owls have specially-developed wing feathers with downy margins so they don’t make the whistling sound other birds make in flight.
The general colour of the Great Horned Owl is a mottled brown of different shades. It has a white throat.
The “horns” are really tufts of feathers which stand up when the bird is perched, but are always flattened down in flight.
Not all owls hoot, but this one does. It has a low-pitched voice which, from a distance, is described as being like a foghorn, or a steam engine whistle, or the barking of a large dog.
Usually it hoots in a five-note series, but it may go as high as eight. It also has a large repertoire of coos, yelps, screams, and even idiot laughter.
This owl is one of the most powerful birds in the northern forest. It is quite capable of killing animals as large as domestic cats, skunks, and even small dogs and porcupines.
Its usual fare consists of mice, rabbits, small birds, grouse, ducks, and assorted other wildlife.
The indigestible parts—bones, feathers, etc.—form into a compact mass in the bird’s stomach, and are brought up again to be dropped at the foot of the tree.
These are “owl pellets.”
Horned owls have been known many times to attack humans. At times, this seems to be a case of mistaken identity—thinking your hair or your hat was a small animal, for instance.
But there are many documented cases where these owls successfully have driven people away from their nests, leaving the intruders with bad cuts and gashes around the head and face.
At lease one man has been blinded by them.
The horned owl usually hunts at night. Its huge eyes are 100 times more sensitive than human eyes, and its extremely acute ears are especially developed for night hunting.
A flock of crows will pester the daylights out of a roosting owl in the daytime. But pity the crow that makes the slightest sound at night. He is a goner.
Owls start their nesting early—perhaps in February or early March. Because they do nest so early, the eggs cannot be left uncovered for more than a minute or so at a time, so the female is pretty well tied down to her domestic duties.
The young ones don’t fly until they are nearly three months old. During this time, the old owls have to supply an enormous amount of food.
Towards the end of this period, the nest area smells very much like a garbage dump.
Although they do take some game birds, and even poultry, the great bulk of the diet of these birds is mice, rats, and rabbits. So the Great Horned Owl is one of our most beneficial predators.
If you hear a low-pitched “Whoo who-hoo hoo hoo,” that’s him.
Nature, Science & You logo