Monday, October 31, 2011

Listening for our Great Horned Owls this winter...

On cold winter nights in December and January, I often listen for our local Great Horned Owl couple as they hoot back and forth from the treetops, calling out to each other in amorous devotion. All is quiet outside when they come through our neighborhood, and their sleepy and soothing calls flow easily in on the cold air. As I kneel beside the open window, looking out into the night, I always hope to see one fly by the window or see a silhouette of one perched against the moon, but I never do. These night creatures are for hearing only it seems, but in the cold and quiet of a winter's deep night, hearing is enough, and it might even be best because I see them through the sparkly eyes of moonlit imagination. Tonight the temperature will dip into the 30s again, and when I wake a hard frost will cover the plants and rocks and any other objects that got in its way, reminding me that I'll soon hear our two owls outside my window as they travel through the cold night...

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
This owl's name is Sylvester, and he is another of RAPTOR, Inc.'s education birds. He's been around for a while, having been rescued in 1997. He was found with wing and leg fractures at the Lawrenceburg exit of I-275...hit by a car. Adult Great Horned Owls really have no natural enemies. Even a Bald Eagle will think twice before nesting in a Great Horned Owl's territory, so it was no surprise to see this bird was injured by humans. With its huge talons, it is one of our most powerful birds of prey. Sylvester is 22 inches long with a wingspan of 4 feet...needless to say, he was impressive sitting on the perch in front of us.

Great Horned Owls live in North America year round, but in our yard we usually only hear them hooting back and forth in late November, December, and January. This is when their courtship, which can start as early as September, really picks up. By January they have set up their territory and have selected their nest site. The female can lay eggs as early as mid or late January. Once the eggs are laid, the vocalizations calm down, and their calls become sporadic. We think the couple that visits our yard is a young pair. The first time we heard them hooting back and forth was January 12, 2009. In 2010 they became regulars. I hope they return to the same territory, and we get to hear them again this winter.

I had never heard the Great Horned Owl's nickname of "Cat Owl," but it was pretty easy to figure out where the name came from. The tufts of feathers that form the "horns" on their heads look like cat ears. Of course the ear tufts are not ears at all. The owl's ears are on its face, hidden beneath feathers and located below and behind the eyes.

Huge eyes...
A Great Horned Owl's eyes are about the size and weight of a human's eyes, but proportionately they take up a larger part of their face. If we compare our eyes proportionately to a Great Horned Owl's, they would be the size of tennis balls! (Source: "Intriguing Owls, Exceptional Images and Insigt" by Stan Tekiela, pg. 22.) Another difference, an owl's eyes are tubular shaped, not round like ours. The added length in the eye from front to back increases the focal length, which means the image appearing on the retina is larger than on a round eye. This is like walking around with a built-in telephoto lens (Tekiela, 23).

40% of all owls have ear tufts. The tufts work to help conceal the bird by fragmenting the outline of its body...or by simulating the top of a broken tree branch. Researcher Denver Holt (founder of the Owl Research Institute) studied owls with ear tufts when they were in the presence of a dangerous predator such as a cat. The owls immediately raised their ear tufts and even constricted their body feathers to appear thinner and taller, mimicking a branch (Tekiela, 62---if you're looking for an interesting book on owls, Tekiela's book, "Intriguing Owls, Exceptional Images and Insight" is a fantastic book. It's packed with interesting facts like this, plus phenomenal photos. It's one of my favorite owl books.)

"Tiger Owl"--another nickname I had never heard of! It's easy to see where it comes from, though. The colors and stripes of the feathers on the owl's belly resemble a Bengal Tiger...or maybe it's called a Tiger Owl because it's so ferocious when it's hunting!

My son read "Walden," by Henry David Thoreau this summer, so when he was finished with it I picked it up to re-read it. When I came across the following passage (Chapter XV: Winter Animals), I knew the quote would eventually end up on the blog. With November and winter fast approaching, it fits our Great Horned Owl couple perfectly...
"For sounds in winter nights, and often in winter days, I heard the forlorn but melodious note of a hooting owl indefinitely far; such a sound as the frozen earth would yield if struck with a suitable plectrum, the very lingua vernacula of Walden Wood, and quite familiar to me at last, though I never saw the bird while it was making it. I seldom opened my door in a winter evening without hearing it; Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer, hoo, sounded sonorously, and the first three syllables accented somewhat like how der do; or sometimes hoo, hoo only."
Many versions of Walden are available online. If you don't have a copy of the book at hand but want to read this chapter, click here for a link to Wikisource.

Note: RAPTOR, Inc. is a non-profit organization committed to the preservation of birds of prey. RAPTOR stand for the Regional Association for the Protection and Treatment of Raptors. Members of RAPTOR, Inc. rehabilitate and care for injured birds of prey until they can be released back into the wild. Click here for RAPTOR, Inc.'s HackBack newsletter and to learn how to donate to the organization, volunteer, or sponsor a banded raptor.

29 comments:

Carole Meisenhelter said...

oh how beautiful Kelly; I've never seen this owl before; your photos are spectacular. Will be passing this link around...

DeanO said...

Kelly, beautiful and magnificent bird

Bob Bushell said...

Great Owl, brilliant photos and the text, thanks Kelly.

Mary Howell Cromer said...

Wonderful stuff, the images are great! I have handled Great Horned Owls before and one thing so amazing, is how light they really are, for such large birds...got to love those feathers!and the eyes wow!

Andrea said...

Great!
These pictures are better and better.
Thank you for sharing them.
Bye

KAT said...

Hi Kelly ! Thanks for this great and poetic post about the owls around here I dream about seeing one and even hearing one too. they are magnificent. the photos you posted are really neat

- KAT -

Roy said...

Marvellous images of this amazing bird Kelly.

Guy said...

Hi Kelly

Your owl series is wonderful and the Great Horned Owl is quite beautiful. I have never seen one with this orange red colour ours tend to be grey. I also loved the quote.

Regards
Guy

Cicero Sings said...

Gorgeous coloring. We don't seem to have any owls in our local area as I have never heard them or seen any evidence of them around and we have walked a lot. We do have lots of mice and voles but the fox and coyotes make short shrift of them.

Carol Mattingly said...

Absolutely beautiful beautiful images and I love the prose. Carol

Dawn Fine said...

Awesome photos Kelly!

holdingmoments said...

That is a beautiful owl Kelly.
I love the colours of his feathers.
I hope you get to see your pair soon.

Mary Ann Gieszelmann said...

Kelly, I just love your introductory lines. Lovely. Poetic. I didn't want it to end, wanted to keep reading the "rest of the book"!

Janice K said...

Oh my, those pictures are amazing! He does kind of look like our tiger cat.

Gillian Olson said...

What wonderful pictures and a simply beautiful bird.

Montanagirl said...

Fabulous photos of this guy, Kelly! He is really gorgeous, and those eyes are amazing. Very nice!!

Elaine said...

Fantastic photos and lovely words! I can always count on you to teach me something new.

Banjo52 said...

You just keep doing it, Kelly--fascinating, very readable info and stunning photos. Again, I'm in your debt for this free education. We all are.

Good ol' Thoreau, he never used one word or syllable when he could find six, did he. Kudos to you for going back to him. I think I'll pass.

Barbaro said...

Thanks for reminding me why I should look forward to winter--you had me at the first sentence.

I've had some remarkably close encounters with owls over the years--more than I prob. deserve, not being much of a bird-lover.

the cuby poet said...

This is such a beautiful post and so informative.I loved it. We have Tawny Owls one each side of the valley I love to hear them conversing.

Campbell Kids said...

Awesome photos, Kelly! I think I will re-read Walden as well...

Blessings,
Dianne
www.mysouthernheart.com

Kerri said...

.......takes m breath away! Wowza!

NCmountainwoman said...

Perfect Halloween post! I love this amazing bird.

Tammie Lee said...

such gorgeous intimate photos! a wonderful post in every way Kelly. I loved Walden Pond when i first read it, now i live a similar life. Wonderful when dreams come true ~

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Kelly said...

...thank you, everyone for the wonderful and kind comments. This bird is magnificent. So big and powerful, he has a commanding gaze and never let us forget how powerful he really was. Cold temps can be trying, but little surprises like two hooting owls in the midnight hours make it all good, and give us something to look forward to!

Marco Alpha said...

Hello Kelly,
Wonderful shots of this beautiful owl. These are very speciel and very photogenic. You've caught him very well in your shots. I like this!!

Greetings, Marco

TonyC said...

What a stunning bird!! I thought great-horned Owls were all grey.
WOW!!

Larry said...

Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos of all the raptors Kelly. I love your intro to this post.

We too have a pair that nest near our home and I expect to hear them soon. I have been lucky enough to see these gorgeous birds in the early morning and watch as they silently float away on a breath of air.

It is amazing to me how many different color variations Great Horned Owls seem to carry. They are my favorite owl. I have been known to stand at my bedroom door after waking in the middle of the night, listening to their sweet calls.