The Great-horned Owl
Just about everyone will tell you an owl story. Perhaps it is how this owl hoots “hoo, hoo hoo, hoo” at night from right outside the bedroom, and it keeps them awake. The most common one is the enormous owl that they see silhouetted in the moonlight as it sits atop a bare tree or utility pole. Either way, your typical story of the owl usually pertains to the Great-horned.
Big and nasty, they are one of the apex predators in the bird world. They will eat just about anything as big as them. Yes, they have been known to take small dogs and cats, so you need to be careful letting your pets out at night. Of course, cats are the biggest killer of birds, most of the damage done while the birds are sleeping at night, so they shouldn’t be outside then.
The Great-horned comes out in the twilight hours. Look for them on top of the tallest tree, imperiously looking around, knowing damn well it pretty much owns the place. Sometimes they will be on rooftops, lamp posts, and just about anything that is strong enough to support them that gives them the best view of the surrounding area to hunt. They are widespread throughout North America and there are several pairs on Cape Island. One of the best places to look is the tree skyline at The Meadows towards the lighthouse. Seagrove Avenue has had a pair in the woods there for decades though they are much easier to hear than see. Any area with woodland and open fields will have them though their territories are large.
Being big, their wing beats are slow and powerful, the wings rounded. Their faces look flat or pug-nosed. If you are looking for other species of owls, it is not typically a good idea to go where there are Great-horns. As I said, they eat just about anything, including other birds. If there are other owls (they are all smaller), they learn to keep quiet and well hidden.
Great-horns have ear tufts. They are not ears and I don’t think anyone is certain of their use(s). Perhaps they make them look more aggressive and alert when they are raised. Perhaps the larger the tufts, the more appealing they are to a mate. Do they help funnel sound into the ear lobe? Raising and lowering these feathers maybe a non-verbal communication to another owl regarding danger. Like other owls that have tufts or horns, they usually live in woodland, and this may help with camouflage. This is another example of just how much there is to discover, even with common birds.
Great-horns are found throughout most of North America—including deserts—and are quite happy around man, even in big cities. Their colors vary in response to where they live. In Cape May, they are fairly dark brown, some with quite a few warmer red tones, particularly in the facial discs. Look closely and you will see they are quite barred. In the Pacific Northwest they are really dark to blend in with the trees there; in the desert, where they will nest out in the open on top of cacti, they are really pale to fade into the sandy environs.
Interestingly, juvenile Great-horns are almost white in their fluffy new downy feathers. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that they would be so pale but everything in nature is for a purpose. They really look like cuddly toys. At about a month old they start to grow in some darker and stronger adult-like feathers and look like the adults by about three months of age.
Even by the end of January, Great-horns can be sitting on eggs; they are the first birds to start breeding. They often use the same place to nest for years, typically taking over an old crow’s roost. The easiest time to find them is while the trees have fewer leaves. They often really hunker down when they see you and can be very difficult to spot from below. When the young ones fledge, they can often be seen on nearby branches for a few days or occasionally struggling to make their first flights. They are so cute, but like so many things in nature, they quickly become something not to be messed with.