Nesting Great Horned Owls
The great horned owl is probably the most commonly recognized owl in North Dakota and surrounding region. Perhaps like you I have been hearing their characteristic “hooting” recently during the evening hours. It might surprise you but they are already in their breeding season and if some aren’t already incubating eggs, they will be shortly. It seems illogical, that their nesting season begins in late February, but when you consider that the young are relatively slow to develop, the early nesting period makes more sense.
Rather than construct their own nest, great horned owls will generally lay claim to abandoned nests such as those of a hawk or crow, or perhaps find a tree cavity to their liking. Females will subsequently lay between two and four eggs during late February or early March. It will take about thirty days of diligent incubation by the female before the eggs hatch.
With the deciduous trees bare of leaves this time of year, the nests are occasionally quite easy to spot. Look for the head of the incubating female sticking up above the nest bowl. If you get close to the nest or a good look at it with a pair of binoculars you may even see the “great horns,” which of course are tufts of feathers and have nothing to do with hearing.
When the owlets are about six or seven weeks old they will begin to explore the immediate area around the nest. Shortly thereafter they will learn to fly; although they usually don’t get very good at it until they are about ten or more weeks old.
The parents will usually take care of the young for about five months, but the weaning may be a slow process. Occasionally the young may be seen begging food from their parents as late as October, and may not leave them until well into December.
Listen for the deep hooting of great horned owls at dusk and throughout the night. If you hear them regularly there’s a strong likelihood that there is a pair nesting nearby. It is interesting to note that mated pairs are known to maintain the same territory (roughly one square mile) for several years, so if you have had owls in the same area in past years you are probably observing the same pair. At any rate, the owl’s activities are telling us that winter is drawing to a close and summer may be here sooner than you think.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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