Have you been hearing the occasional hoot of a great horned owl during the night? They have vocalizations in association with territoriality and courtship. And be ready to hear it more frequently. Territories are being announced and contested, and the males are calling to the females. Great horned owls are known for their early mating season which will start soon, with egg laying starting in late February.
Why so early? Incubation time is about 30 days. Then the young are slow to develop. They will remain in the nest for another six to seven weeks. By the time they are ready to fledge, at 10-12 weeks, it is into June. Just in time for an abundant food supply of young mice and other prey items.
Like other birds, the great horned owl has a courtship or prenuptial display. Arthur Cleveland Bent in his Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds quotes the observations of it by a Dr. Lynds Jones in 1892, which is worth repeating here, and I quote”:
“I once had the good fortune to steal unnoticed upon a pair of these birds in their love making. The ceremony had evidently been in progress some time. When discovered the male was carefully approaching the female, which stood on a branch, and she half turned away like a timid girl. He then fondly stroked his mate with his bill, bowed solemnly, touched or rubbed her bill with his, bowed again, sidled into a new position from time to time, and continued his caresses. All these attentions were apparently bashfully received by the female. Soon thereafter the pair flew slowly away side by side.”
Hhhhmmmmmm! They may have flown off to start a new home, but great horned owls don’t build nests. They are not too picky. They will probably find an unoccupied or abandoned hawk or crow nest in which to set up house. And they are not major remodelers. They likely will just clean it up a bit and line the bowl with feathers. I suspect, however, that there are occasional battles over the nest between the builder or prior occupant and the owl squatters. Apparently, the occupancy can vary considerably from year to year.
If all goes well, they will fledge between 1-4 young. So, if you hear the hoot of the great horned owl regularly there is probably a nesting pair nearby.