Spring 2020 Critter Encounters: Great Horned Owl

Great horned owls are making a comeback in my neighborhood. At least, I hope they are.

I wrote last summer about my dog Conall briefly catching an owlet in his mouth in July of 2016 (it survived). I also described two encounters, several years ago, with great horned owls in the forest.

I used to hear the songs of great horned owls – hoo hoo-hooo, hoo-whoo – regularly at night, especially in summer when my bedroom window is open for cooling, but even in winter with window closed. It’s a weirdly soothing sound, although some find it sinister or terrifying. But lately they seemed to disappear, taking their songs with them, which was worrying. Why?

This year, I’ve heard the the great horned owls singing again. Not frequently, like before, but occasionally. I included a recording I made one morning in April of two great horned owls singing back and forth in my post Nature’s Calls and Responses.

Driving up my road the morning on June 29th, something about a neighbor’s old barn that I drive past almost daily caught my eye. It wasn’t movement, just something…different about the shape of the structure. I slowed as I passed and looking up, I saw it: a great horned owl perched on a beam protruding from the front of the barn. She remained still, observing her terrain – and me – from up high where the roof of the old and crumbling two-story structure starts climbing toward its peak. Luckily, I tend to notice things that are new, unusual, or out of the ordinary.

owl, barn, tree
Being watched as I got out of my car.

I slowed, then stopped by car. My dogs were puzzled by this, and I was grateful that the two dogs living here didn’t come out to investigate, creating a commotion. Getting out with phone camera in hand, I stood next to my car, very still, and quickly took a couple photos, fearful the owl would fly off before I could get a shot.

great horned owl on barn beam
She doesn’t seem worried, or even interested. Maybe she had a long night.

The owl couldn’t have cared less about me, it seemed, safe on her perch. I walked closer, took more photos, walked closer yet, and took some more from just 20 feet away from the barn. And while I would have loved to see her fly, I felt like I was being pushy and intruding into her space, interrupting whatever she was doing there. I retreated to my car and drove home, leaving her in peace. I didn’t want to discourage her from hanging out in my neighborhood.

great horned owl, barn
Now she’s looking a bit ticked at my approach. I retreated and left her to her thoughts.

Since seeing her that morning, I’ve been listening, especially at night, for great horned owl songs. So far, all I’ve heard are coyotes on occasion. Doesn’t mean the owls aren’t out there, of course; I could easily sleep through their singing. Maybe, after this owl’s chicks have fledged (I’m hoping she had chicks; I don’t know, of course; I don’t even know that this particular owl is a she), I’ll hear the signature “hoo hoo-hoo, hoo-whoo” songs of great horned owls in the night more frequently. (Their songs are typically four or five syllables – those I hear are five – and have been transliterated by some as You still up? Me too.)

After seeing this beautiful creature perched on the barn beam, I felt compelled to learn a bit more about these large, composed, mystical birds.

I did my usual light research. I already knew that great horned owls are mostly nocturnal. That’s when I usually hear them, but of course I can’t see them then. My rare visual encounters with them have been in daytime. They like living in woods, especially those that include open areas, so it makes sense that I sometimes see them where I live, a huge valley of open pastures surrounded by national forest, with plenty of food sources. They’re widely dispersed across North American and into parts of South America. In addition to forests, they can be found in swamps, deserts, tundra edges, cities, orchards and parks. Very adaptable birds.

The only owl in North America that’s larger than the great horned is the snowy owl. According to Wikipedia: “Adult great horned owls range in length from 43 to 64 cm (17 to 25 in), with an average of 55 cm (22 in), and possess a wingspan of 91 to 153 cm (3 ft 0 in to 5 ft 0 in), with an average of 122 cm (48 in).” I can attest, from that one up-close viewing years ago when they flew through the trees right in front of me, that their wing span is awesome to witness when in flight. And yes, they’re silent fliers. Incredible.

Females are a bit larger than males. Great horned owl eyes are only slightly smaller than ours, and their hearing is so good they can detect the movement of a mouse under a foot of snow. In Idaho, they live throughout the state all year.

Here are more fun facts from the website of the International Owl Center in Minnesota. I like their tongue-in-cheek style of writing. Their stuff is in italics.

Age/Mortality – The first year of life is the hardest to survive for Great Horned Owls and depends heavily on food abundance. Once they reach adulthood, survival rates are very good. They have no natural predators as adults, so most owls admitted to rehabilitation centers are the result of human-caused problems: hit by car, shot, electrocuted, caught in barbed wire, caught in leghold traps, west nile virus, poison, etc. Natural causes of death include starvation and hunting injuries.

The oldest known wild Great Horned Owls were 28 years old, but in captivity they can live even longer. A captive female at the San Francisco Zoo turned 50 in 2012, but normally they only live into their 20s or early 30s if they do well in captivity.

Diet – Great Horned Owls eat almost anything that moves, and will even eat carrion if need be. They are carnivores, however, and don’t eat seeds, bread, or anything other than meat. A partial list of food items they have been documented eating includes: hares, rabbits, mice, coots, and ducks (these are generally staples of their diet); skunks, ground squirrels, rats, muskrats, tree and flying squirrels, woodchucks, prairie dogs, raccoons, house cats, very small dogs, porcupines, voles, kangaroo rats, pocket gophers, moles, opossums, chipmunks, shrews, bats, bobcat, weasels, geese, herons, loons, mergansers, grebes, rails, pigeons, starlings, other owls up to and including Great Horned Owls, Osprey, crow, raven, hawks, pheasant, bobwhite, Rhinocerus Auklet, chickens, grouse, shorebirds, gulls, egrets, bitterns, woodcocks, doves, woodpeckers, songbirds, lizards, snakes, frogs, toads, salamanders, worms, crayfish, insects, centipedes, scorpions, suckers, chubs, perch, bluegills, sunfish, catfish, bullheads, and eels.

Basically they eat whatever is handy, and have one of the most diverse diets of North American owls. This helps them to be able to live in a wide variety of habitats, including cities.

[Me: Yay, they eat skunks!! The boys got skunked a few days ago -arrggghhh! – which was the first time this year but after last year’s three times, when for years there hadn’t been any interactions, I’ve worried that local skunks lack a natural predator and their numbers are ballooning. Maybe there’s been an imbalance in recent years, with fewer great horned owls to keep skunk numbers in check. But if the owl number are rebounding? Maybe I’ll be giving the boys fewer de-skunking baths in coming years.]

Pellets – Like other owls, Great Horned Owls eat fur, feathers, and bones along with the meat and organs. And like other owls, their stomach acid isn’t acidic enough to digest the bones, fur, and feathers, so they throw up pellets once a day that consist of these indigestible goodies. (Some other owl species throw up pellets twice a day.) Pellets are coated with a slimy layer of mucous to help them slide up and out.

[Me, again: I wonder if this is the indescribably slimy and gross-smelling thing sometimes seen on trails that many dogs feel an irresistible urge to roll in?]

Nesting – Great Horned Owls, like other owls, are clueless about building nests. They use other available structures to nest in, which include stick nests of hawks and crows; squirrel nests; small caves, ledges or crevices on cliffs or in quarries; sometimes on the ground in the entrance to a den; bridges, power lines, barns and old buildings, large flower pots on balconies, and a variety of artificial nests put up by humans from old tires to laundry baskets.

Eggs and Incubation – They most often lay 2-3 eggs (western owls often lay 3-4), with incubation usually starting when the first egg is laid. The female develops a brood patch and does the incubation, which usually lasts 32-34 days.

Fledging – Owlets grow very fast and eat like pigs. They are ready to start “branching” out onto adjacent branches or the side of the nest sometime after 6 weeks of age, even though their head and bodies are still fuzzy. They aren’t flying well until 10-12 weeks of age. This is a very vulnerable time of their life.

Can they turn their heads all the way around? Yes and no—it depends on the starting point. If an owl starts with its head in the forward position, it can easily rotate to look directly behind itself. If startled while in this position the owl can crank its head a bit further. (Some species can go a full 270 degrees from the front, but Great Horned Owls cannot.) Owls normally don’t do more than look over their back under normal circumstances.

But if the owl starts with its head rotated to the back over one shoulder, it can easily turn its head back to the front and then to the back over the other shoulder. So yes, they can easily turn their heads all the way around if they start out facing backwards. This means the can see all the way around themselves without having to move their bodies at all.

On the flip side, their eyes are so large they cannot move them at all in their sockets like we can. So they NEED to be able to turn their heads farther. They accomplish this by having LONG necks (14 cervical vertebrae as opposed to 7 in humans). They just have long, fluffy neck feathers and keep their necks squished down into an “S” shape so it looks like they don’t have much of a neck.

And as you likely guessed, owls of all types have figured prominently throughout history in mythology and in native cultural beliefs. One example specific to great horned owls, according to the Owl Pages website: “In the Sierras, native peoples believed the Great Horned Owl captured the souls of the dead and carried them to the underworld.”

From the Pow Wows website, this intriguing insight: “Among many tribes, two of the owls with tufts on their heads, the Great Horned Owl and the Screech Owl, are often seen as the most uncanny and most dangerous of owls. In fact, some tribes believe that individual examples of these owls may not even be real birds at all, but instead are actually transformed witches as described above, or as in some other tribes, the unquiet spirits of the dead.”

In pop culture, owls deliver mail in J.K. Rowling’s seven-book Harry Potter series. Woodsy Owl, the U.S. Forest Service mascot, encourages children to protect the environment (“Give a hoot, don’t pollute!”) Besides Pooh himself, Owl and Rabbit are the only two characters from Winnie-the-Pooh based on real animals, with Owl portrayed as the one with the wisdom and the patience that the others highly respected. Conversely, in many cultures and pop references, owls are seen as harbingers of bad luck, even death.


PS: For the editors and grammarians reading this post, you’ve no doubt noticed that I don’t capitalize great horned owl, while in the snippets from the International Owl Center, it is capitalized. Which style is correct? After some research, I discovered there’s a split in approach. It depends on who you are. Birders like to capitalize bird names. Thus, field guides to birds, such as Sibley, National Geographic, Peterson, Audubon, Golden, and Tekiela, capitalize. General writers, writing about birds, including for scientific magazines like Audubon, Smithsonian, National Geographic, National Wildlife, Science and Scientific American, do not.

I’m not a birder, although I like birds and am finding myself more fascinated by them every year I’m privileged to live so close to nature. I’m just a writer writing about them on occasion, so I choose to not capitalize. Besides, I’m sick of seeing people – including the current US president – incorrectly capitalizing random words in their sentences because they want to emphasize that word. Or – more likely in the case of said president – never learned basic grammar, spelling, and writing beyond an eighth-grade level.

I vote for no capitalization of bird names. I most certainly won’t vote for you-know-who. And this is as political as any of my blog posts will get because truly, haven’t we politicized pretty much everything lately? My blog strives to be a place to take a break from all that. Doesn’t mean I don’t have strong political and social opinions – I most certainly do – but there are better, more appropriate places for such discourse than my blog.

14 thoughts on “Spring 2020 Critter Encounters: Great Horned Owl”

  1. There was a couple living by the river a couple years ago. Sadly, the male was killed somehow and I happened on his body on a hike on the other side of the road. It could have been anything, wind, predation while he was down with some prey, I don’t know. The first time I saw them, though, I happened on him when he was on the ground, contending with some prey. I saw them often and it was always a treat and somehow feels like an honor.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have noticed wildlife returning to urban areas since we have been forced indoors since the pandemic began. No owls but I spotted a raccoon nonchalantly passing through the gardens of our ancestral home in Everett, plus a weasel proudly prancing across my fathers back patio with a dead squirrel in his mouth.

    The neighborhood has its own website where regular sightings of coyote are reported, more recently with a dead cat in the jaws of one.

    A mated pair of bald eagles have graced the craggy trees near the river on the north edge of town for years, such that no one notices them any more. You can only see their nest from a bicycle, not the car. Probably best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cool! Except the pets lost to wildlife part.

      Early in the pandemic I wondered if I’d see more wildlife in the forest with things so much quieter, but sadly with summer it’s actually noisier out there with the increased popularity of loud UTVs/ORVs and national forests being one of the recommended places to get outdoors while remaining distant from others. I feel sorry for the wildlife.


  3. When my kids were in grade school, they used to go to a summer nature camp. One of the activities was dissecting owl pellets. You should give it a try, it’s pretty cool. Sort of the treasure hunt is to see if you can find a skull.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You have a good eye! Isn’t it interesting how our brains “map” a structure like a barn, and then notice when something changes or doesn’t belong. It’s a skill that probably came in handy in our hunting-and-gathering days. In this case, maybe your eye picked up the light grey of the owl against the dark background of the interior of the barn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yes, it’s a useful skill, to notice when things change. My initial thought upon seeing something new on the barn was that the owners had put a fake owl there to scare off other birds, so I was quite happy to discover it was real!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a cool discovery. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an owl in person. I think my parents may have gotten a plastic owl to put in the trees to try and scare animals off. I have a fuzzy recollection of that; however, I don’t remember what animals they were trying to scare. I hope the owl has a family and they have a long lineage ahead! As always, wonderful anecdotes about owls, especially in conjunction with the spirits of the dead. Mona

    Liked by 1 person

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