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Nesting Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owl
YellowstoneNPS/Neal Herbert
CC PDM 1.0
Great Horned Owl

Most of us are familiar with the hooting of great horned owls. But we hear them a lot more than we see them. It is amazing that they can stay so well hidden. But if you have an interest in seeing them, now might be a good time to begin looking for them in earnest. That is because they have started to nest, and the young should start hatching in about a month or so. With the deciduous trees still bare, the owls are about as observable as they get.

Great horned owls generally do not make their nest. Because they are such early nesters, they can often lay claim to the nest of a hawk or crow from last year. They are also known to utilize cavities in trees and other sites, but the majority will be a nest constructed by a hawk or crow somewhere between about 12-50 feet above the ground.

Their breeding season starts roughly in late February and may last into June. Like many mated pairs of birds, once the nest is established, they will defend a territory around it, in this case perhaps in the range of roughly one square mile. Incubation is about thirty days. So even now, certainly with the help of a pair of binoculars, a keen observer might be able to spot a portion of the head and ear tufts of the incubating owl sticking up a bit above the nest. And of course, once that has been discovered, the nest and its occupants can be occasionally observed.

If, for example, the eggs are laid during the end of February, by late March the eggs should begin to hatch. The young owlets, often two to three, are slow to develop. They will stay in the nest for six to seven weeks and will not be able to fly until they are 10-12 weeks old, which puts things into June.

When the young are around six weeks old, they generally begin to “branch.” Don’t take that literally! “Branching” or exhibiting “branching behavior” is when young great horned owls begin to leave the nest and perch on adjacent branches. The owlets are still covered with down and their feet are strong, but the wings, not so much. So, they venture out on nearby branches and flap their wings to test them out. So, the owlets from early nesters could start branching around mid-April when many of our trees are still not fully leafed-out.

So, as you travel about, look a little closer at those large nests in the trees. You may discover an active great horned owl nest. And if you do, you could learn a lot more about great horned owls and also enjoy some great entertainment.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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