With less than a week until Valentine’s day, store shelves are filled with candy, red and pink hearts, and stuffed animals. While we’re perhaps contemplating a romantic, candle-lit dinner to celebrate, most animals are still hunkered down just trying to stay warm. Springtime and courtship rituals are far from their minds. Others, however, have been in a loving mood for some time, including the great-horned owl.
The great-horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is the most widely dispersed owl in North America. While sources differ over how many exactly, there are a number of subspecies based mainly on regional variations in habitat, color, and size. Part of its success is due to its high adaptability. It may nest in the woods or in urban areas, take over an old squirrel nest in your backyard, or set up shop in a sign over an office building. It is also one of the earliest birds to breed in North America.
Way back in November and December while we were preparing for the winter holidays, the great-horned owl was already courting. Courtship for great-horned owls involves hooting back and forth, bowing, and bill rubbing. While the great-horned owl is monogamous, they spend most of the year within the same territory but apart from their mate except during the breeding season.
Depending on the area, with southern owls laying their eggs earlier and northern owls laying later, the female owl will lay between 1 and 5 white eggs in January or February. For approximately the next month, she will incubate them while being fed by her partner. Cornell Lab of Ornithology currently has a great-horned owl nest camera set up showing a female incubating her eggs in Savannah, Georgia.
In some species, both male and female birds will incubate their eggs, but only female great-horned owls do this. This is helped by something called a “brood patch,” an area of the belly where feathers fall out to expose a swollen area of flesh like a hot water bottle. The incubating bird presses the brood patch directly against the eggs (and resulting chicks) to keep them warm while in the nest.
Like most other birds, once the owlets hatch, they are tiny, naked, and helpless. The term for this is “altricial.” But over the next 6 to 8 weeks, they’ll grow down, followed by feathers. Once this happens, they’ll be ready to “fledge,” or leave the nest. Fledging doesn’t mean fleeing the coop, however. Juvenile owls will stay close to their parents for months, leaving to find their own territories in the fall either of their own accord, or after their parents have gently persuaded them!
One of the best places to see nesting great-horned owls in northern Colorado is at Twin Lakes Park in Gunbarrel, CO. Easily seen from the trail, the owls consistently return to the same hollow tree to raise their young. If you’re in the area this Valentine’s day, it’s a romantic (and free!) activity to do with your sweetheart.