By Laura & Hal Mahan
We are sitting at home, while frigid winds blow outside. It’s hard to believe that in the dead of winter some birds are already nesting. The Great Horned Owl is one of the first.
Among all birds, the owls are some of the most fascinating. Here in the Asheville area, there are four species of owls that you are most likely to encounter: the Great Horned, the Barred, the Screech and the Barn Owl. Our smallest owl, the Sawwhet, is also the rarest and lives at high elevations.
Without a doubt, the most impressive owl in North America is the Great Horned Owl, also known as the big hoot owl from the “whoo whoo whooo whoowhooo” call it makes. We hear them hooting regularly in our Chunns Cove neighborhood, especially during the late fall. This is a very large bird, measuring up to 21 inches in length, and with a wingspan of up to 60 inches. Its name comes from the prominent “ear tufts,” which aren’t actually ears at all. The ears are hidden under feathers near the front of the face below the eyes.
By December, Great Horned Owls have already chosen mates and are searching out a nest site. They do not build their own nests, but take over an abandoned crow or red-tailed hawk nest or old squirrel nest, adding not much more than a few feathers for a soft lining. Eggs are laid most commonly in late January or early February, and the female sits on the eggs (usually two) for about a month, with help from her mate who brings food and helps guard the nest. It is not unusual for the female Great Horned Owl to be incubating eggs while the surrounding tree branches are covered with snow. It’s also common for only one of the hatchlings to survive through its first year. Mortality is very high, sometimes due to the harshness of weather during its first days.
The young will stay in the nest for a month after hatching, supplied with an abundance of food (squirrels, chipmunks, moles, small birds) by both parents, skilled nighttime hunters. Great Horned Owls are large, but silent hunters, with soft-edged feathers that flap silently though the night. They have amazingly acute hearing and eyesight, but their sense of smell is apparently minimal. They are one of the few predators that catch and eat skunks!
Check your neighborhood for resident Great Horned Owls. Look for a mound of sticks high up in the trees (40 to 70 feet). Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to see a female owl on the nest this month. Last year there was a Great Horned Owl nest near Mullen Park on the UNC-Asheville campus, giving passersby good views and great photo ops of the young owls.
For a closer look at live Great Horned Owls, check out the Western North Carolina Nature Center on Gashes Creek Road (wildwnc.org). The owls on display have suffered permanent injuries and would not survive again in the wild. We are lucky to be able to see them up close and personal at this wonderful facility.
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit compleatnaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.