It’s always quieter on winter evenings. Humans are mostly inside sitting in front of flickering screens rather than stargazing outdoors in the cold. For those who brave the cold in rural areas, they might be startled by the call of the great horned owl (bubo virginianus).
The largest “eared” owl in North America, the great horned is resident in much of Ohio although numbers have declined with suburban sprawl. The ears that so distinguish the great horned are actually tufts of feathers standing off either side of the owl’s head.
Coloring is a mixture of brown, black and buff feathers with snow white feathers under the chin and sometimes flowing down the breast. The coloring makes the great horned hard to spot in the daytime when it roosts in the trees of woodlots with a good view open farmland and its possible prey.
Great horned owls in Ohio do not migrate unless there is a food shortage. With a diet that isn’t picky, that usually is not a problem. The owl’s favorite prey are mice and moles, but they will eat songbirds, small cats, squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, grouse, snakes, smaller species of owls, and the young of beavers and muskrats. Small ducks and the young of geese on a pond are literally sitting ducks for a hungry owl, and the great horned has no fear of skunks or porcupines.
Chickens and turkeys that go to roost in the barn in the early evening are usually safe from the hunter whose large eyes allow it to see in the dark. However, farmers tell of finding great horned owls that managed to get into chicken coop and had a midnight feast. Guineas, who like to roost outside in trees and on the ground, never hear the silent wings until is it too late. The fringes on the great horned owl’s wing feathers make it the ultimate stealth predator.
The great horned owl is monogamous with the female at 3 to 4.5 pounds somewhat larger than the average male at 2.5 to 3.5 pounds. An adult is an impressive 21-23 inches in height and wingspan ranges from 50 to 60 inches. They prefer woodlots or riparian corridors surrounded by open hunting ground to forests.
When you’re the terror of the skies, you don’t worry about building a nest. You steal the nests of squirrels, hawks, eagles or herons unless you find a nice hollow cavity in a tree or an abandoned building. Owls lay one batch of 3-4 eggs a year that hatch in about 30 days. While the female sits on the nest, her mate brings her food, continuing to hunt for the owlets once they hatch.
They young owls will stay with the parents for their first year, with a 50 percent survival rate. Those that make it though that first year have a life expectancy of 6-7 years, with the oldest owls reaching 15 years.
The great horned owl has a five- or six-note hoot, shrieks, barks, growls and a spooky scream, but what you are most likely to hear is the who-who-whoooo of the great horned hunting its dinner.