Owls in the Garden
By Linda Fulton, Master Gardener
What an adventure we had last year. It all began last winter, around January, when we noticed increased Great Horned Owl activity in the 40 foot poplars located behind the house. We’ve seen the owls off and on over the years, but this time things were different. The owls appeared to have moved in to an old existing nest which had been in use for the last several years by Red Tail Hawks.
We learned that Great Horned Owls are notorious for laying their eggs in nests of eagles, crows and red tail hawks. Keep in mind that Great Horned Owls nest much earlier, end of January into February, than red-tailed hawks, therefore they can assume ownership to a nest previously built by hawks or crows before the other birds arrive to nest. Most owls do not build their own nests.
Nesting is usually started in late January. The female will incubate the eggs while her mate brings her food. Within a month, there were up to five eggs. Now we had four eggs that will hatch. The owlets are closely guarded by their parents and they are not afraid to attack if they feel their family is threatened. Six weeks after hatching the owlets will leave the nest and walk around. One of the little guys, we assumed, was pushed out of his nest and landed on the deck in the back yard. We heard a thump and looked out the back door. There was a baby, almost in full plumage, on the deck with momma nearby. She was showing the little guy how to spread his wings to frighten away predators. What a beautiful sight! Alas, the neighbor’s dog had other ideas and things did not end well. In three weeks, the young owls had already learned to fly. The parents will continue to feed and care for the offspring for several months.
That was the best spring and summer rodent free season we’ve ever had. Great horned owls will hunt and eat just about anything. From mice to snakes, rabbits, voles, squirrels, waterfowl, etc. And because owls don’t have a well-developed sense of smell, Great Horned Owls are a prime predator of skunks. Yum! So, if you currently have a Great Horned Owl on your property, you most likely do not have a problem with rabbits or large rodents. But keep an eye on your chickens and small cats and dogs. Great Horned Owls are one of the few predators that will attack prey larger then themselves.
It was wonderful watching the babies grow and their parents teaching them how to fly. Throw in a few crash landings and unusual takeoffs in the tree tops just added to the fun. Finally, there was a bittersweet farewell when they left the area. Mom and dad did stay around, although not in the nest. Much to our surprise, they came back this January and the festivities have begun again.
Interesting facts about Great Horned owls:
- Wingspan of Great Horned Owls average 4-5 feet.
- Females are larger than males. Average female weight is 4 lbs., males average 3 lbs.
- Average height is 1.5 to 2 feet.
- Identification is made by their big yellow eyes, orange facial disk with a black outline, long ear tuffs, white throat and dark barring on the body.
- Great Horned Owls have few predators, except other great horned owls.
- They are one of the largest and most powerful of all nocturnal raptors (birds of prey).
- They are sometimes called “winged tigers”, “hoot owls”, and “cat owls”.
- They are superbly designed for nocturnal hunting. With specialized wing design, exceptional hearing and binocular vision, they can pinpoint prey in near darkness.
- Their range includes most parts of North and South America. Scientific name is ‘Bubo Virginianus’ because the species was first observed in the Virginia colonies.
One more important note: It is illegal to own or possess any bird of prey. If you do come across an injured or abandoned bird notify Washoe County Animal Control or the National Wildlife Service. We are lucky to have a bird of prey rehab facility in Washoe County.