Early Nesters

Adult Great Horned Owl with chick in a nest near Madison.  Photo by John Kees.

Early nesters like Great Horned Owls face a number of challenges when laying eggs in January. Cold temperatures make it more difficult to keep eggs warm enough to develop. And once eggs hatch in early March, the growing chicks demand plenty of food despite hatching at the end of winter when food is the least available. If the family can make it through the winter, however, they gain huge benefits. First, it saves the parents from a bit of manual labor. Rather than building their own nest, they often steal nests built last year by Red-tailed Hawks. The hawks might be wintering along the Gulf of Mexico at this time, which leaves an unguarded nest for an opportunistic owl. Second, this is the perfect time for owl chicks to build their hunting skills. Chicks fledge and start exploring outside the nest around mid-April, conveniently when other birds and mammals are just starting their families. These baby animals are an easy meal for the young, clumsy owls to practice controlling their flight and perfecting their eye-talon coordination. Though they get a chilly start in life, Great Horned Owl chicks are prepared well to survive their first spring.


Who’s awake?

Deep in the middle of winter, Great Horned Owls are already planning for chicks. Pairs begin singing duets in November to strengthen their bond before the first eggs are laid in late January or February. It is difficult to distinguish males and females in daylight since they have the same plumage (and females are slightly larger), but their calls provide hints once the sun goes down. The owls take turns calling into the night, repeating a phrase that sounds like “Who’s awake? Me too.” These calls are usually very distinct; males have a low-pitched voice compared to the female.

We are fairly sure that our Great Horned Owl, Theo, is a male based on his body weight, but the true test will be comparing his voice to another owl. Jayme, Living Collections Assistant, heard two Great Horned Owls, probably Theo and a wild bird, conversing in Cable earlier this week. We’ll have to listen again to find out if he is courting a high-pitched female or defending his territory against another deep-voiced male.


A Big Step for Carson


I have taken Carson’s training nice and slow. I go at her pace and let her tell me what she is comfortable with. But sometimes I have to take a risk. When Carson was inside last week to escape the cold temperatures outside, I decided to leap ahead in my carefully sequenced training plan to see how she would do in front of a group of people. We have spent months building trust in the mew, but I didn’t know if that comfort level would transfer to the classroom.

I was relieved to have a small group of well-behaved adults for Saturday’s “Talon Talk” program; it would be the perfect audience for Carson’s latest debut. Her first test was coming out of the crate. Just like we had practiced over the previous week, she hesitated at first, looking between the glove and the room outside the crate door. After a moment she set one foot on glove and tested its stability. My hand held her weight without wavering so she peeled the second foot off the perch and placed it on the glove.

Her next challenge was staying calm in front of the audience. I watched her body language out of the corner of my eye. She stood up straight, looking around at each corner of the room, and even took a few mouse tidbits. I was impressed; she didn’t seem concerned about a thing. After a few minutes, I brought her back to the crate while she was still comfortable, completing her portion of the program as a fun, positive experience for both of us.