Matt Spoor is the business end of Grand Cities Bird Club. He sends out the meeting notices.
Last week, he added this note:
“Last night around 5:30, I was driving south on 42nd and right in front of Amundson Funeral Home, there was a great horned owl prominently perched in a deciduous tree right along the road just watching the cars go by. Thought that was a little odd.”
Yah! It might be a little odd if the owl was watching the cars.
But probably, it was watching the edge of the road.
Twilight is mealtime for owls, and the roadside is a delicatessen.
Owls are “perch and pounce” hunters. They like exposed perches with good views. When prey happens by, they grab it.
They are quite capable of carrying off a squirrel or a rabbit. Probably, their most frequent food items are small rodents.
Small rodents like road edges, because a lot of food is spilled there. In rural areas, this often means passing grain trucks. Mice are fond of grain. In town, it probably means motorists throwing out the remains of their fast food sandwiches. Mice are happy with bread.
Owls are not so good at snatching prey from the air, as hawks do. These two kinds of birds—both raptors—use different hunting techniques.
Great horned owls are widespread across North America, and they quite often are encountered here. They don’t discriminate between city and country. As long as there is cover to hide them in daylight and food to hunt at night, owls will be present.
They will be widely scattered, though. As apex hunters at the top of the food chain, owls need quite a lot of territory, and as large birds, they need quite a lot of food.
So they are not abundant in any one place.
Still, they can be thought of as common because they often are present—and not just in breeding season, but year around. Owls are residents, not migrants.
They are not so often seen, though, and almost always alone. Except for breeding, owls are pretty much solitary.
Great horned owls are nocturnal, active only at night.
Most are seen at twilight, when they emerge from their daytime hiding spots and take up posts for their nighttime hunting.
Spoor’s owl on a bare tree branch is pretty typical. I’ve seen owls on utility poles, fence posts, hay bales and rock piles—any exposed perch, in other words.
Sometimes, owls emerge in daylight—but usually unwillingly. Crows harass them, chasing them from their hiding places.
Crows are sworn enemies of owls.
Owls generally get the worst of these confrontations because crows are so much more numerous. Mobs of crows drive owls away.
This can have serious consequences.
Owls are very early nesters. Their breeding season gets underway in midwinter. In our area, courtship activity begins in February, and nesting peaks in early March.
Crows sometimes drive owls away from nests.
Courtship among the owls consists of a kind of nocturnal duet. This is known as “territorial hooting.”
The term “hooting” is appropriate. The great-horned owl often is called “hoot owl.”
The call is deep and rhythmic: “Whoo! Who! Who!”
Often, this call is returned, either by territorial males or by females seeking mates.
These calls generally stop once nesting begins.
Of course, this means February is a good time to listen for owls. Good places are city parks with mature trees. The Red River Greenway qualifies.
Any substantial farm shelterbelt probably will have owls, as well.
It’s likely, in fact, that owls have spread out over the landscape since the tree planting programs that followed the Dust Bowl. This created the kind of edge habitat owls like—places where prey easily can be spied.
Owls did occur on the Great Plains before settlement, though. Meriwether Lewis had a notable encounter with a great horned owl near the mouth of the Little Missouri River in what is now northwest North Dakota.
There is an unfortunate consequence in the owl’s choice of hunting grounds.
Great horned owls that hunt along roadways often are struck by vehicles and frequently killed. Those that survive may be blinded. Their eyes are large and not well-protected. Impact knocks them from their sockets.
Raptor rehabilitation centers usually have a blind owl, or several.
The great horned owl is a magnificent bird and an effective predator.
The species is well-adapted to a wide range of conditions. It occurs from the tree line across North America, meaning it nests in the High Arctic and the hot deserts.
Although they are not generally migratory, owls from the far North sometimes show up in the Red River Valley in winter. These birds are more gray than the local birds, which are brown or rust in color.
The great horned owl is the only member of its genus that nests in North America. A closely related species, the Eurasian eagle owl, is widespread in the Eastern Hemisphere—and would have been familiar to the Germans and Norwegians who planted the trees that shelter the great horned owl on the Great Plains.