Photo courtesy Liz Jamison
This week’s Bird of the Week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the great horned owl.
In children’s books, this bird is often known as the wise old owl and a group of them is known as a wisdom. Some cultural mythologies associate this owl with bad luck and death. Definitely, this bird of the night has captured our imagination.
This large, widespread owl is a master of camouflage, colored in grays and browns with a white throat patch. Large tufts of feathers that look like ears have nothing to do with hearing, but do help the bird’s silhouette resemble that of a branch. They have large, yellow eyes whose retinas contain many rod cells to provide excellent night vision. Specialized soft feathers with fringes muffle air sounds and provide silent flight. These adaptations make this bird a fearsome nighttime predator known as the “tiger of the sky.”
Strictly carnivorous, it is not a picky eater, consuming small to medium-sized mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, other raptors and nestlings. With a fairly poor sense of smell, it is one of the few species that preys on skunks. Small prey is eaten whole and indigestible parts are regurgitated as hard pellets containing bone, fur, teeth and feathers.
Mated pairs are monogamous and may stay together for life, remaining on the same territory of several hundred acres year after year where they are loyal to favorite feeding spots and roosts. Crows, whose roosts great horneds raid at night, are their sworn enemies and may gather in noisy mobs during the day to harass a sleepy owl until it flies off.
Great horned owls nest as early as January or February and, in early winter, their hoots in the evening, often sung in duet by male and female to claim territory and attract a mate, will give their presence away. This may be the best time of year to locate and appreciate these quiet, secretive birds.
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