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Who’s awake? Me, too...” I love to hear the deep, powerful hoots of a great horned owl billowing through a snowy forest. Their stuttering rhythm -- hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo – seems to ask the question, then offers a conspiratorial answer.
I usually hear great horned owls in early winter, as they form pair-bonds and defend territories in preparation for nesting season. These large owls don’t build their own nests, but take over nests made by crows, squirrels, hawks, or herons--whether their previous owners were ready to move out or not.
In late January and February things quiet down as the larger female owl lays from one to four, but most often two, eggs. She must begin to brood immediately, and then for the full 35 day incubation period, so that the eggs don’t freeze. Because of the necessity of constant brooding, great horned owls have a very strong pair-pond, and the attentive male brings food for the female, and eventually the chicks.
Why must owls nest in the depths of winter? It takes a long time for the owlets to grow up, and they require parental care well into July. If the owls waited until June, like the smaller birds, the young owls would not be strong enough before the next winter.
Just thinking of a 3 ½ pound owl, right now, sitting in a snow-covered nest with eggs or young chicks, makes me feel cold. But the owls are tough.
Excellent eyesight, precise hearing, and silent flight make great horned owls intimidating nocturnal predators. Their super strong talons (reported to crush prey with a force somewhere between 30 and 300 pounds per square inch) allow them to hunt such formidable prey as porcupines, geese, and scorpions. Speaking of tough, they are the only regular avian predator of skunks.
From their place at the top of the food chain, the only things great horned owls have to worry about are territorial disputes with each other, eagles, and snowy owls. Oh, and those pesky crows. Great horned owls are crows’ most dangerous predators, but if crows find an owl during the day, they will flock to it and harass it with the safety of numbers. One author hypothesizes that the long hours of darkness during their breeding season helps to protect the owls from crow harassment.
As tough as they are, owls do have one more predator to worry about – humans and our vehicles. Road ditches – where trees for perching meet grass with small rodents – are tempting places for owls to hunt. When you throw your apple core out the window, it attracts even more rodents, which lure even more owls. Unfortunately, when an owl is focused on its prey, it won’t notice your headlights closing in.
Most of the Museum’s collection of owl specimens were picked up on the side of the road. Their wings and feet make great educational tools, but we’d much rather have live birds in the wild.
Not every car-owl collision ends in the salvage freezer, though.
Last summer, Joe Papp, a Museum volunteer who has experience with raptors, noticed a great horned owl in the ditch along Highway 63, just south of Drummond, several days in a row. When Joe was finally able to catch the owl, it was obvious that its wing was injured, and the owl couldn’t fly.
Well, Joe brought the owl to Katie Connolly, our Museum Naturalist/Curator, and she delivered the owl into capable hands at the Raptor Education Group, Inc., in Antigo, WI, where they have licensed rehabilitators.
“Unfortunately his wing had been broken at a joint, and had already begun to heal, leaving him crippled and unable to fly ever again,” Katie told me. “The rehabilitators believe he was struck by a car on Highway 63 and began eking out a living next to the roadside because he couldn’t fly away. We can only imagine him running down mice and other rodents to eat!” she added with a chuckle. That’s just one more example of owl toughness.
Because the owl can’t fly, he wouldn’t have a fair shot at surviving in the wild, and is non-releasable. Six months after the accident, the male great horned owl, now named Theo, is safe and well fed in his home in the raptor mews at the Cable Natural History Museum. With Katie as his trainer, Theo will soon be an education bird who can help kids of all ages learn about the amazing adaptations, and toughness, of great horned owls.
We’ll be posting updates about Theo’s training progress, construction of his new home in the Museum’s outdoor classroom, and public programs where you can meet him, on our website (www.cablemuseum.org) and Facebook page.
While you wait to meet Theo, don’t forget to keep an eye—and an ear—out for his wild cousins. Who likes owls? Me too.
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI, at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April 2014.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com/.