The Owls in My ‘Hood
Last year I missed the mating rituals and nesting of a pair of Great Horned Owls in my neighborhood. I caught up with their two offspring at a stage of development known as “branching,” where they’ve left the nest and perch on trees while learning to fly. Each morning I’d find them in the trees near my house and they’d patiently let me photograph them with a lens large enough to keep a respectable distance, more curious than afraid. Apparently, they hadn’t learned to be afraid of humans yet. Great Horned Owls take life-long mates, but last year there was a community rumor that the male had been hit and killed by a car. This syncs with my observation of only a female attending to the two juveniles for several months until one day I noticed a male – usually smaller than a female – in the area. “Perhaps she’s found herself a new beau,” I thought.
Fortunately, this year I was much more attuned to the bird happenings in my neighborhood and watched as a male and female – I would like to think it is the same pair as last year – courted and set up a rookery in a palm tree near my house. A mated pair doesn’t build a nest together, but will raise their young in the abandoned nests of other birds and often they’ll return to the same spot each year. The busy park that hosts a weekly farmer’s market with loud music and crowds of people seemed an unlikely place to bring up a family, but Mom, Dad and their brood of three didn’t seem to mind.
The Miracle of Life; The Sorrow of Death
A female owl will lay 2 to 5 eggs over a period of days and incubate them for 26 to 35 days. Incubation of the eggs begins when the first one is laid, so there’s always a size difference in the owlets. Female owls, like many other birds, develop a sparsely feathered area on their bellies called a brood patch. The almost bare skin has a high density of blood vessels, providing a direct source of warmth to the eggs. Each day I would check on the pair – she dutifully sitting on the nest, eyes closed, and he standing guard in a nearby palm with one eye open – until one morning I noticed she was sitting higher in the nest. I was thrilled to think she was sitting on an egg or eggs and several weeks later, I spotted the first fuzzy-headed fluff ball. It wasn’t long before a second and finally a third owlet was hatched. I named them Larry, Moe and Curly for their comical appearance as they watched with bright, curious eyes the movement in the park below them. They had become stars of the neighborhood and would daily draw a small crowd of gawkers and photographers. While the eggs are being incubated they are never left alone so the male brings food to the female. But even under the watchful eyes of Mom and Dad, it is not always possible to protect them and so, as in this case, the unthinkable happened: the smallest chick was taken by a hawk. Nature’s way, I know, but still sad to witness.
They Grow So Quickly…
As days turned into weeks, the owlets’ thin coat of natal down was replaced by a heavier, second coat of down and they grew rapidly. In fact, birds of prey are the fastest growing vertebrates. Within eight or nine weeks of their birth, the babies will reach full adult weight and feathering.
Time to spread Those Wings and Learn to Fly
One morning, the oldest owlet, Larry, was digging around the nest under Mom and his sibling until he found what he was looking for – a portion of a baby rabbit that Dad brought home the night before. Unfortunately, seconds later he lost his grip and it toppled over the side of the nest to the ground. He watched it for a while as if willing it to somehow fly back up to the nest. The next day, both owlets left the nest and I couldn’t help but wonder: was it time to move on to the next stage of development or was the action prompted by Larry’s attempt to retrieve the family’s meal?
Danger, Danger, Will Robinson!
That first morning after they left the nest, I discovered Moe, the smaller of the two, in a bush by the school and he looked frightened and confused by all the activity around him – cars and buses and people all towering over him instead of his usual view from above. Suddenly, he was in the road, wobbling on unsteady feet and wings not ready to fly yet as he dodged the passing cars. I ran out and stopped the line of cars and the herded Moe to safety across the street where he teetered off like some bow-legged old man into the bushes between two houses. It took a day or two for Mom and Dad to gather both owlets back together and I relocated the family a few blocks away in another group of palm trees in another park. Over the next five weeks, the parents will continue to feed the young birds as they begin to make their first short flights. By fall, the owlets will have learned to hunt for themselves and will begin to disperse from their nesting area to establish territories of their own. The Great Horned Owl has a life span of at least 28 years in the wild, so hopefully, this pair will return to my neighborhood for a good many years to come!
More Fun Owl Facts
- The Great Horned Owl is also referred to as a cat owl, hoot owl, big-eared owl and “the tiger of the sky” because of its aggressive nature and ability to capture prey much larger than itself, including raptors such as Ospreys, Peregrine Falcons, Prairie Falcons and other owls. They also eat much smaller items such as rodents, baby rabbits, frogs and scorpions.
- When clenched, a Great Horned Owl’s strong talons require a force of 28 pounds to open.
- Owls are considered symbols of wisdom and good luck in some cultures, but in others, they are feared as a sign of impending death and doom.
- Many people believe that an owl can turn its head all away around, but this is not true. Owls have fourteen neck vertebrates that allow them to move their head at 270 degrees, left to right.
- The color of these birds varies with the area in which they are found. Canadian and Pacific Northwest Great Horned owls are very dark, while the birds found in arid regions such as Arizona are usually very sandy in color. In the Arctic they are practically white.