By BRUCE AUCHLY
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, we bring you those wonderful love birds – great horned owls.
That’s right. The fiercest, most aggressive, most impressive owl in North America as a symbol of Valentine’s Day.
Look, it may be winter with all the attendant cold and snow, but great horned owls are in the midst of their mating season and, pretty soon, if not already, sitting on eggs. No other birds in Montana court and mate during the winter.
That hoot-hoot-hoot you heard at night or just before dawn in January is the mating ritual of the great horned owl. After mating, the owls will continue to hoot, not so much to proclaim their love and affection but to stake out a territory and warn other owls away.
So the great horned owl mates and begins nesting in the dead of winter. Must be crazy, right? Maybe. Or maybe no other birds are as smart as the wise old owl.
Actually, it’s neither wisdom nor craziness that drives the great horned owl to nest so early. Rather it’s just that it takes so darn long to raise a young owl.
First, the female owl takes two to three days to lay on average two eggs, then she sits on them (incubation) for 30-35 days.
After hatching, the young birds will remain in the nest for close to two months before their first flight, called fledging. That can be mid- to late May or later.
Afterward, the young have to be taught and practice to hunt at night, neither short nor simple tasks. It can take as long as six months after hatching – we’re into September now – before the young have fully acquired their first winter plumage and are good fliers and hunters.
Because owls are mostly nocturnal and silent on the wing, we don’t see them much and therefore we’ve come up with all sorts of myths.
Folklore has bestowed owls with wisdom and magic, or sometimes they symbolize death and messengers to the afterlife. Reality is more exciting.
Although much of the great horned owl’s activities take place from sunset to sun up, sunlight does not blind them. They have keen vision day or night.
Their eyes are designed for maximum sensitivity rather than resolution. That means they can see very well at low light levels but not very crisply. So they use their eyesight mostly to avoid obstacles, locating prey with their ears. Their eyesight is good, their hearing superb.
Like all Montana owls, the great horned version has a facial disc that funnels sounds to ear openings covered by feathers on the side of its head. Those inconspicuous ear openings are lopsided (asymmetrical) not like ours.
That allows them to triangulate sounds and find a mouse scurrying under several inches of snow in the dark of night. Remarkable.
Those tufts of feathers atop their head? They are not ears and have nothing to do with hearing. But their purpose is a bit of a mystery. Some think the tufts help camouflage the bird against a tree. Others say the tufts help with communication or recognition. Like maybe one bird signaling to its mate on a winter’s night.
So this Valentine’s Day think of great horned owls – amorous in the dead of winter and the dark of night.