Great horned owl ovation
Foster owl Hogan feeds an orphan. Photo courtesy of Terry Stevens and Liberty Wildlife
During winter’s long nights there is always a chance that a supreme predator of the wild world may perch for awhile on your rooftop. The great horned owl kills for a living, employing frightful talons capable of squeezing eighty pounds of pressure. These weapons are enforced against a wide range of meek creatures from centipedes and small snakes to rats, mice, cottontail rabbits, and skunks. Even hawks and falcons asleep on their roosts are vulnerable. The fierce aspect of this hunter is mesmerizing. The great horned owl is the largest of Arizona’s owls averaging twenty two inches in length with a wing span of over four feet, yet people startled by a night time encounter with a GHO will often swear the animal they saw was far larger. This owl strikes a chord within humans, something of awe and ancestral respect. The staring yellow eyes, the heavy curved beak and the radial pattern of feathers framing the facial disk create a haughty impression. If you are fortunate to see a great horned owl up close perhaps in a wildlife presentation, you will observe the superb adaptations of this hunter. Luminous eyes see in near total darkness and keen hearing makes the tiniest rustle fatal for a small mouse in the night. The feathers of a great horned owl are a feat of engineering and artistry. Dark grey, buff and white barring camouflages the owl on its daytime roost. Downey soft, flexible feathers silently carve the air. The leading edges of the flight feathers are serrated in a comb-like design which cuts down on wind resistance and ensures the owl’s powerful wings make not a sound as it sweeps down on prey. One morning this week I saw a great horned owl perched on the edge of the school building roof, overlooking the grassy patch where the cottontails nibble before dawn. Later in the week on an evening an owl prepared for the hunt on the chimney of a nearby house, fluffing his feathers, is bulk and ear tufts outlined in the darkening sky. Some owls from the north come to the Southwest for the winter, so we see and hear more owls this time of year. In the shadowy half light of dawn and dusk from late December through February breeding pairs declare their territories with haunting hoots. An early breeding season allows great horned owls to move into nests previously built by red-tailed hawks or other raptors. Great horned owls don’t bother with nest building and may simply lay eggs on any ledge, platform or beam that offers nearby hunting opportunities. The clutch’s two or three owlets spend a relatively long time mastering the arts of flight and prey pursuit. They remain on the nest for up to seven weeks and continue to practice flying even after fledging. During this time mom and dad continue to supplement the meals.