Local great horned owls began nesting in January, according to Kevin McGowan, a researcher at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University. The owls should have nestlings by now.
Great horns are widespread across the United States and the most numerous local owls aside from screech owls. Snowy owls have been in the news recently because of record numbers wandering south this year, but part of their high profile is that they are easier to see.
“It’s surprising how such a large bird can be so inconspicuous,” says McGowan about the great horns. They are comparable in size to the visiting snowy owls. Both species can have wingspans almost five feet across. Summer nights in the arctic get very short, and snowy owls may be active at any time of the day while great horns are more likely to hide in trees until dusk. “They’re actually very well camouflaged,” McGowan says.
The female incubates the eggs while she is fed by the male of the pair. Despite the cold temperatures, the eggs are kept warm by the large size of the bird and her abundant feathers. McGowan explains that they may be nesting so early simply because they can. There are enough small mammals to support the effort, and the young themselves take a long time to grow. During the spring and summer the young owls will have to provide themselves with rabbits and squirrels.
McGowan says any local woodlot probably has a great horn pair nesting right now. Some owls even breed close to urban areas. McGowan knows of owls that regularly nest in the Fuertes Bird Sanctuary, which is part of Stewart Park in Ithaca.
It is easier to hear great horns than to see them, although McGowan points out that few people are in the woods at night when they’re likely to call. The owls hoot in a monotone voice, and pairs will often sing a duet. The hooting has the same territorial and pair bonding functions as classic bird song. “People tend not to call things songs unless they sound pretty,” says McGowan.
People who encounter great horn nests should be careful approaching them because great horns are easily disturbed by people. This is another reason these owls are less noticeable than snowy owls, which seem to be unconcerned by the presence of humans.
Fear of humans makes rehabilitation of injured birds more difficult. John Parks, the faculty advisor for the Raptor Program at Cornell, says, “Great horned owls are known for being recalcitrant, especially if it’s an older bird.” The program has a great horn which cannot be returned to the wild due to a wing injury. After much time and careful attention from handlers, the wild owl became resigned to captivity.
The great horn is a mainstay of the Raptor Program’s educational presentations. Students often present basic facts about the different species on display such as the fact that great horns nest in the winter. Parks says that great horns are so well known that people are unimpressed by their great size. Usually someone in the audience has a story of hearing or encountering these owls.
Occasionally sportsmen see them as competitors. Parks says, “Some people would say they’re almost a pest species because they have a huge impact on small mammals.” In his opinion, people are more likely to complain than actually harass wild great horns.
Bonnie Parton, a Senior Wildlife Technician with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), does not know of anyone complaining about great owls to the DEC. The owls are covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and she says that means “it is illegal to harass, kill or keep the owls or their body parts.” Waivers or permits to do so would have to be issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Parton also explains that the regulatory definition of migratory is different from the dictionary’s definition. The act covers non-game birds which naturally occur in the United States, even those which, like the great horn, are non-migratory.
Great horns are large predators, but Parton does not know of any state species which they actually threaten other than peregrine falcons. According to McGowan, in the 1970s the Peregrine Fund released endangered peregrine falcons into Taughannock State Park and Fall Creek Gorge in Ithaca. To their dismay, great horns ate the released birds. The fund eventually established a breeding population of peregrines in New York state despite the predation.