I’m pretty sure there’s a great horned owl courtship going on near my house right now.
You can’t be positive about these things because often they happen in the dark. But when you’re up and moving around at 5 a.m. as I often am, you’re apt to run into all kinds of animal activities, including great horned owls cuddling and cooing.
Twice in the last five days, while walking before dawn on the road that runs past our mailbox, I’ve heard a pair of great horned owls hooting and calling back and forth to each other.
In the available light, I was able to focus in on both of them, perched in the top branches of a pair of live oaks. I also heard a third call, but I couldn’t see that bird.
This morning just before six, I witnessed a peculiar act that I’ve since learned is the male owl’s love dance. I’d never seen it before and didn’t even know it existed. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m pretty impressed.
One thing about owls that I like — and I like lots of things about owls — is that great horned owls often prey on skunks. They kill them with powerful, ripping talons. They have four toes on each foot, all of them feathered down to the talon to protect them from any gnashing teeth or claws that prey may defend with.
Skunks smell really bad, as you may have noticed, but, since birds don’t smell — at least with their noses, that odor doesn’t bother an owl when he snatches a skunk out of a pasture.
One morning while deer hunting in South Texas, I watched a horned owl swoop in and silently land on top of a deer feeder about 100 yards away. After sitting quietly and virtually motionless in the light before sunrise, he dropped down and put the hurt on a cottontail that was grinding up corn.
It was an instant kill. There was no sound. Nothing.
Apparently owls wing feathers are made differently from other birds, allowing them to swoosh down and capture their prey, in total darkness and without making any noise. They are the original stealth bomber, I guess.
Obviously, a great horned owl’s eyesight is superior to our own, plus he’s able to fly in total darkness to attack animals that never see him coming. Owls also can see in the daytime, and they can see some colors.
But back to the beginnings of territorial behaviors and eventual mating that I’m seeing and hearing here close to the house. Owls nest through the winter and so begin establishing territories fairly early in the fall. Eggs are laid late in the year and the young, usually 2-3 at a time, are ready to hunt on their own by late spring, when there should be an abundance of rats and mice and other prey available.
The thing that great horned owls do that sets them apart is that the male and female will take up perches in trees or other high spots not very far apart. One of my morning owls was on a power pole set just off our road, and I could see him silhouetted against the lightening sky.
What I assume was the female was just a few yards away. Every time he would hoot, she would answer.
From directly beneath him, I could see the male owl was leaning way out from the top of the pole, holding fast with his powerful talons. He was almost horizontal. Later I did a little research and found that’s a way of showing some dominance and one technique for attracting a mate.
He called as he leaned away from the pole, the sound drifting down on me. I was carrying a flashlight and couldn’t resist shining the beam up there to see what the bird was doing.
The bird was beautiful. He looked down at me. I looked up at him. I kept the light on no more than 3-4 seconds before switching it off, but that was enough for him.
He stayed may a second or two, then spread his wings and pushed off toward the north, passing close to the female owl, hooting as he flew. And then there was no sound.