By Mary B. Davis
There’s a cover of quiet over the earth on a wintry day. All seems cold and still, almost lifeless. But, let’s take a walk in the woods and who knows what you may see or hear? Peer into the branches and vines hanging fromtrees. You may be surprised to see the gleaming golden eyes of the Great Horned Owl calmly staring back at you. On the other hand, you may walk right by it, as it is so perfectly camouflaged and often keeps its eyes closed during the day.
Sitting silently, this owl looks like it’s just wisely waiting for winter to pass. But, as with each living thing in the natural world, it is bound not by our calendar, but by its own internal biological clock. As we stand there with cold, numbed fingers, it’s hard for us to imagine that it’s time for the Great Horned Owl to think about mating and nesting, but the ardor of this owl – the earliest of our nesters –is not the least bit dampened by winter’s chill.
If you haven’t found this owl by day, try taking a walk in the early evening on a moonlit night. Listen for the deep, muffled, mysterious hooting of the male and occasionally the females’ shorter and higher- pitched answer. (Listen to hoot here.) Once you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget it. If we could witness their courtship dance – the male bowing and sidling about his mate, sometimes caressing her with his bill – we might see the female rejecting her suitor’s advances until she is offered a substantial enticement like a rabbit. Then, after the feast, she may dance as vigorously as he! Once paired, they maybe seen roosting together during the day.
Great Horned Owls don’t make their own nest, preferring a hollow tree or a hawk’s old nest. Neither snow, sleet nor storms will keep both the male andfemale from taking turns sitting on their 2 or 3 white eggs. If left unattended, these eggs would surely freeze!
Skillful hunters, these owls have sharp eyesight, acute hearing, special soft-edged feathers for silent flight and strong feet and talons. One might think that food would be scarce in this frozen stillness. Actually, this is not an illogical time for a bird of prey to raise its young. Few tree leaves interfere with vision and animals awakened from their winter naps by hunger pangs may be slightly befuddled and not as wary as usual. A sleepy skunk, or a mouse scurrying out for a quick snack may be on the menu.
It is my hope that on one of your walks, you will be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this large, powerful and beautiful bird that is living right here in our suburban woods.