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.



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