Venturing outside at night is not particularly appealing during January, but those who brave the cold and dark may be rewarded with a glimpse into the world of owl nesting. This is the best time of year to hear the deep, rich calls of male owls seeking a mate or defending their territories--you may even hear a slightly higher-pitched responding hoot from female owls!
Beginning in the late fall and early winter, owl courtship consists of the male calling and a female eventually joining in. The male will swoop down and bow to the female, offering her food. If she accepts him as a mate, she will hoot back, bow to him, allow him to move in closer, and they will preen one another. Once a female chooses a male, they will likely remain mates for life.
January may not seem like the best time for a breeding pair to begin raising their young, but the fierce great horned owl defies expectations. The biggest species here in New York, the great horned owl, stays here year-round, choosing to brave the cold instead of migrating. They are built to withstand chilly temperatures, as they are covered in a thick layer of downy feathers from their heads all the way down to their big, powerful feet. They are also built to begin breeding during months that are too cold and extreme for most other animals in the Northeast. Owls in general are early to nest, and great horned owls tend to be the first to begin laying eggs, sometimes beginning as early as December.
Owls do not usually build their own nests. They prefer to take over nests left behind by other large animals or find a suitable cavity in a tree or other structure. With a mate and nesting site selected, a female great horned owl may begin laying her eggs in late January, usually laying each egg a few days apart. She incubates the eggs starting when the first one is laid and stays on the nest using her body heat to keep the fragile eggs warm while her mate is responsible for hunting and bringing food back to the nest.
The eggs will begin to hatch after about thirty days, and the down-covered nestlings will spend the next few weeks in the nest eating all the food delivered by their parents. The owlets will fledge six weeks later and begin exploring the world outside their nest potentially as early as February and March, meaning that they leave the nest long before many other animals in the northeast even begin breeding.
As you make your way outside during the night this month, keep an ear out for the haunting hoo-hoo-hoo, hooo hooo of the Great Horned Owl looking for a mate or a pair duetting together, and know that they are preparing to accomplish an amazing feat and welcome their young into a cold, wintry world.
- Siobhan Prout, Outreach Educator