Dark clouds float across a full moon as a gust of wind sways tree branches and sends fallen leaves rustling along the ground. An owl hoots in the distance ... Scared yet?
The eerie sounds of owls have been used in movies for a long time to establish a spooky mood. The Great Horned Owl has a perfect sound for this end, typically emitting a series of five deep booming hoots with a distinct rhythm, “hoot, hoot-hoot...hoot...hoot.”
Owls are a unique group of birds that are mostly nocturnal, so they are more often heard than seen. Their mostly brownish plumage is excellent camouflage to stay hidden during daylight hours. They have large heads, short necks, an upright posture and some have feather tufts on their head. These tufts are not ears, they break up the head outline so owls can blend in better with trees.
Most owls are found in or near wooded areas where they use a “perch and wait” hunting style. They have flat facial discs that allow them to better “catch” sounds of food items rustling below. Other predatory adaptations include hooked beaks, sharp and strong talons, excellent vision in low light conditions, acute hearing, and frayed edges on feathers that allow for silent flight to surprise prey.
Their eyes are fixed in their sockets so they must rotate their heads to shift their gaze. They can rotate their head almost 180 degrees, allowing them to inconspicuously see what’s going on behind them. They also regurgitate pellets of undigestible food parts like hair, feathers and bones. Some other owls that live in Teller County include Flammulated, Western Screech, Northern Pygmy and Northern Saw-whet Owls.
The Great Horned is the largest owl in Colorado, about the size of a Red-tailed Hawk. Body color can vary from dark brownish-gray to very pale. Large yellow eyes and long tufts or “horns” adorn the head. Look for fine horizontal barring across their belly and a distinct white patch on the throat. Sexes appear similar but females are larger and their voice is higher-pitched. I have heard Great Horned Owls calling a few times, mostly in the winter. Their typical low-pitched hooting can be heard from a far distance and they will also emit screechy calls.
I have seen a few in the Woodland Park area, mainly in riparian areas and at the edges of woodlands at dawn and dusk, but I also had one sitting on a fence post in my yard during the day. The songbirds were throwing a fit, dive bombing the owl that just ignored the smaller marauders. Concentrated squawking of birds can often indicate the presence of an owl. They nest very early and may start sitting on eggs in January. By the time spring rolls around the young are ready to fledge at a time when more food is available. Note that juvenile Great Horned Owls lack ear tufts.
Great Horned Owls primarily prey on small mammals up to rabbit size, but are opportunistic and will snatch birds as large as geese and also reptiles, amphibians, fish and large insects. Bird victims even include hawks and smaller owls. They are one of the few animals that will prey on porcupines and skunks. Their poor sense of smell helps with this dietary selection and they sometimes will not survive an attack on a porcupine.
They roost in wooded areas but while hunting at night can range far into open spaces. They are such a successful species that any grove of large trees in North America, from high-altitude forests to low-level woodlands, could be harboring a Great Horned Owl.
Notable reports in September from the Woodland Park Yard Area:
• Broad-tailed Hummingbird — last seen on Sept. 6
• Calliope Hummingbird — last seen on Sept. 16
• Williamson’s Sapsucker — one on Sept. 9, one immature male on Sept. 27
• Clark’s Nutcracker — one on Sept. 6
• Ruby-crowned Kinglet — Sept. 19 and 21, sang a few times
• Red-breasted Nuthatch — one or two around most of the time
• Wilson’s Warbler — one fall migrant on Sept. 6
• Yellow-rumped Warbler — some sightings at water features
• Black-headed Grosbeak — last seen on Sept. 9
• Chipping Sparrow — a few sightings, last seen on Sept. 22
• White-crowned Sparrow — one fall migrant on Sept. 27
• Evening Grosbeak — a few around some of the time
• Cassin’s Finch — two on Sept. 27 and 30
• Pine Siskin and Red Crossbill — small flocks with juveniles all month
Joe LaFleur studied wildlife biology and communications at Colorado State University and is the creator of “Better Birdwatching,” a DVD series on North American birds. Contact him with questions and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.