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Friday, February 19, 2016

Niagara County’s winter nights can be eerily silent. With human activity kept indoors and the sound of the breeze passing through leaves a thing of the past, the nighttime can be uninviting and lonely.

That’s why your ears always perk up when that silence is broken by the mournful, long-carrying calls of the great horned owl.

What are great horned owls?

The great horned owl is the second largest owl in North America, only a couple of inches shorter than the great grey owl of the wilds of western Canada and Alaska. It is powerfully built and comes in at 24 inches in height, with an amazing wingspan of four and a half feet.

These owls have a unique appearance. They are multi-colored, a mottled and barred mix of brown, chestnut, grey, and black. If you are fortunate enough to find one in daylight hours, their eyes are large and bright yellow. What give them their name are their two pronounced ear tufts which look like devils horns.

Great horned owls are great and powerful hunters and, in their nighttime hunts, will take mice, rabbits, chickens, ducks, and more.

Where to find great horned owls

Just from what I’ve gleaned from Facebook and emails this winter, many people, even in developed areas like villages and just inside the city limits, have been fortunate enough to hear great horned owls sound off this season. That might speak to a population renaissance of sorts for these awesome birds.

It also speaks of their versatility: They are equally at home in woodlots, farm country, villages, and in city parks.

You don’t see them much during the day because most owls are, after all, nocturnal creatures. You have to rely on their winter calls at night to know they are in a given area. To find them during the day, follow the commotion – if you hear a bunch of crows raising heck in a woodlot or hedgerow, chances are they’re harassing an owl that was trying to sleep away the day.

Why do they call in the winter months? 

The call of the great horned owl is low, so it carries for a great distance. It has been described by some bird books as hoo, hoo-hoo, HOO HOO. The tone is deep enough that you can even hear it in your home on a quiet night.

You might have heard these calls start a few days after Christmas and you can still hear them now. That’s because these owls are the earliest breeding birds in western New York. January is the mating season and some great horned owls are already sitting on their nests right now. It will take 35 days for the eggs to hatch (and both parents share time sitting on them). The fuzzy little babies can then fly 9 to 10 weeks later.

To find their nests, look for one of the large nests that your local red tailed hawks use in the summer months. It’s a sort of time share – the breeding and rearing seasons of the owls and hawks don’t overlap very much, so both species will get use out of the nest without ticking each other off. Great horned owls will also nest in very large cavities in older or broken trees. They are opportunists when it comes to having a home.  

The summer screamer 

Although young great horned owls will be on the wing before Mother’s Day, they don’t mature into excellent hunters until the late-fall. So, they need to be fed by their parents right up to September sometimes.

You might find yourself absolutely frightened by the calls of hungry baby owls in the summer months. They don’t let out the typical hoots of the big owls, nor do they whinny like the diminutive screech owl. Instead, they let out a singular blood-curdling scream that I suppose a ghost or banshee is supposed to sound like.

The summer calls are interesting, but they can also be frustrating, especially if the mama owl has 3 to 5 mouths to feed and each one expresses its hunger. A few years back, a family of great horned owls used to get their meals at the neighboring dairy farm, and for 3 weeks straight, the babies would scream all night long from our yard, waking us out of deep sleep repeatedly.

Whether it’s summer time or winter time, the voices of great horned owls can fill the Niagara nights. I hope you’re lucky enough to hear one and even luckier to see one. These are some really impressive birds of prey.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he sometimes wishes he could feed baby owls so he can sleep. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at  

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