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A Bird’s View from Winds Way | Great Horned Owls

Photo by Richard Wines

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November 13, 2020

Nancy Gilbert

A monthly column written by Nancy Gilbert with photos by Richard Wines.

There is nothing more magical than waking up in the middle of the night to the hoooo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo of a Great Horned Owl. And if you’re lucky, you will hear an answering series of four or five hoots from the owl’s mate, but at an audibly different pitch. This is the season to start listening for owl calls as the males began to set up territories in October and the courtship ritual of exchanging calls commenced soon afterwards. Great Horned Owls are monogamous, often mating for life, and will begin nesting in January or February.

Uncommon but widespread, these birds can be found from Canada to Patagonia and most places in between. The Great Horned Owl is the quintessential owl of storybook, cartoon and stuffed animal fame. Easily recognizable because of their cat-like ear tufts, bright yellow eyes, cinnamon colored facial disk and large size, they are a favorite bird for many. Extremely adaptable, these owls do not have difficulty thriving around people. While they are happy in habitats varying from city parks to deserts, if you live on the East End you are most likely to encounter a Great Horned at the edge of a wooded area with near-by fields or open space.

While Great Horned Owls are nocturnal – roosting on a tree branch during the day and hunting at night – there are clues that will help you spot one. Have you ever been surprised by a large number of highly agitated crows cawing madly and flying in circles around a particular tree? You are witnessing what is known as an owl mobbing. Crows and even groups of songbirds will gather from afar to dive-bomb, chase, peck and otherwise harass Great Horned Owls. Why? Because this owl is a formidable predator with the most diverse diet of all North American raptors. A Great Horned is capable of taking down birds and mammals larger than itself, but also dines on smaller animals such as mice and frogs. Their excellent vision due to retinas that contain many rod cells, sensitive hearing aided by facial disk feathers that direct sound waves to their ears, and ability to fly smoothly and silently make them formidable hunters. The feathers pictured below, which I found outside our barn and were probably gathered by a Barn Swallow to line its nest, are body feathers whose primary function is to keep the owl warm.

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Two more clues you may discover are owl pellets or owl whitewash. What’s an owl pellet? Your children or grandchildren might be able to tell you about their experiences pulling one apart to identify the owl’s prey by the bones within. Owls regurgitate indigestible hair, feathers, and bones twice a day. These grey-brown furry oval lumps can be found under trees in which the owl roosts. Because the owl swallows small prey whole, the pellet usually contains whole bones. While this may sound a little grisly, it is an excellent way for children to learn about food chains and animal anatomy. Over the years we’ve discovered a number of pellets on our property in Jamesport, but I confess to having dissected them and wasn’t able to find one recently to photograph for this article.

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But I have included the picture of a clue that can be much more noticeable than a pellet – owl whitewash. These large chalk-like splatters of white excrement are highly visible and can be seen on the ground or on tree trunks or branches near an owl roost. Be sure and examine adjacent trees for signs of a nest, but move slowly, do not get too close and never play recordings of their calls if they are nesting. Great Horned Owls usually adopt a nest formerly occupied by a Red-tailed Hawk or squirrel but will also nest in cavities in trees. The female, who is larger than the male, lays a clutch of 1 to 4 eggs and incubates them for 30 to 37 days, occasionally getting help from her partner. Once the nestlings arrive, both parents bring them food and the babies will remain in the nest for 3 to 4 months before they can fly. The hatchlings are helpless, with closed eyes, pink skin and a scattering of white down. It will be a year before they become sexually mature.

We feel so incredibly lucky to share our field and woods with Great Horned Owls! Finding owl pellets or signs of whitewash makes me want to return to school and study ornithology. You can imagine how excited we were to discover a nest with two fledglings near our vegetable garden. The beautiful bird in the picture above is one of the parents, posing on the branch of a Sycamore tree planted by my husband’s grandfather. I love this picture! Wherever it is that you spot a Great Horned, it seems to be looking directly into your eyes. This is because of their remarkable capacity to swivel their head more than 180 degrees. It is moments like this that will enable us to put 2020 behind us and embrace a new year. Happy owling!

A Bird’s View from Winds Way is a monthly column by one of our board members and avid birder, Nancy Gilbert — with photos from her husband Richard Wines — on our local birds. Nancy’s columns appear on our blog, so please tune in each month for more from Winds Way.

About the Author

Nancy Gilbert is a board member and a conservation easement donor — as well as avid bird enthusiast and master gardener. In December 2001, Nancy and her husband Richard Wines, donated a conservation easement to the Trust on their property, Winds Way, in Jamesport. This easement protects 9.9 acres of agricultural land as well as 1.7 acres of scenic beachfront woodlands and wetlands on Great Peconic Bay. Also protected by the easement are the facades of the historic buildings located within the 3.2-acre development area, including a Greek-Revival residence, an historic barn, and a mid-19th century one-room schoolhouse. You can learn more about Winds Way and its history on their website: windswayfarm.com

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