Trying Times


While some animals slumber away through February or have fun in the sun down south, other species make the most of Saint Valentine’s month.

Like great horned owls, which are in the middle of their mating season and, soon, if not already, will be sitting on eggs. No other birds in Montana court and mate during the winter.

That hoot-hoot-hoot, which you heard at night or just before dawn in January and February is the owls’ mating ritual. 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.

If not already, great horned owls soon will be sitting on eggs in their nest, even though winter continues.

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.

Bears, black and grizzlies, are another exception to February’s apparent sameness. Around the end of January and the beginning of this month, throughout Montana hundreds of pregnant grizzlies and black bears gave birth in their winter dens.

Each litter averages two cubs, born tiny and helpless. A grizzly averages one pound at birth, black bears around half a pound.

The cubs are blind and nurse on rich milk that is 20 to 40 percent fat (human milk contains 4 percent fat) while their mother sleepily stimulates urination and defecation by licking the cubs.

The mother grizzly does wake from her deep sleep from time to time – to give birth, eat the placenta, and clean up her newborns – but researchers are not sure that she ever fully comes out of hibernation until the spring.

The cubs never hibernate. Instead, they spend their first winter drinking mother’s milk and growing.

By late February, grizzly and black bears have given birth in their dens. The cubs stay awake and nurse, while their mothers mostly sleep.

At emergence, towards the end of May, a sow with cubs may have lost 30 to 40 percent of her body weight, while females without cubs may have shed only 15 to 20 percent. Cubs weigh about 8 pounds when they emerge but will grow to 20 to 30 pounds by summer, depending on their diet.

Female rainbow trout and other spring spawning fish already hold eggs in various stages of development. Those eggs will continue to develop while the fish waits for the proper environmental cue, like daylight length and water temperature.

Wild rainbow trout reach peak spawning from March through May, depending on the river. Then, a female rainbow will clear a slight depression, called a redd, in gravel, using her tail, and deposit 2,000 to 3,000 eggs.

As she releases her eggs, a male rainbow will move alongside her and release his milt over the eggs, fertilizing them. And another generation begins.

This month may be the discontent of our winter, as we keen to hike, hear meadowlarks, smell the earth after a rain.

But life does go on in February, even if we don’t notice it.