Wednesday, December 17, 2008
December is owl season here. Twice this week I've seen and heard great horned owls. Last Saturday, one glided by silently at dusk as we were roaming around admiring Christmas lights. Yesterday evening, a male and a female were hooting from their perches in an old cottonwood tree as I ran my regular route around the neighborhood. I stopped to hoot with them. They hooted back. Whether the resonating call of the owl evokes feelings of wild beauty or primeval dread, it is always a reminder of something greater than the human world to anyone who pauses to listen. For me, this was definitely a moment of wild beauty.
The truth is, anyone who walks at dawn or dusk will sooner or later be rewarded with the soft, low hoot of a great horned owl. At this time of year, when night drops earlier, we are more likely to be outside when the owls are most active. The great horned is the most common and widespread of North American owls and a year-round resident wherever they live. They are also the most adaptable, being able to thrive in both wilderness and urban settings, from the coldest northern forests and mountains to the hottest southwest deserts. Among the six species of owl found in the Sonoran Desert (barn, western screech, pygmy, elf, and burrowing owls are the others), the hoot of the great-horned owl, along with its impressive size, make them easy to identify. Some call them the “five-hooter,” since their most common call has five parts, with the second and third hoot more rapid than the rest. With a little imagination, you can hear them say “Who’s awake? Me too.” The female hoots are shorter and higher than the males.
As with all birds of prey, the female is slightly larger than the male, although it is the male who hoots the most, as he stakes out the one-third to two square mile territory for the pair during much of the year. In winter months, males and females hoot to one another as they engage in courtship and breeding. If they are successful, young hooters like the ones in this photo made by our friend Ken Wier a couple of years ago, will be testing their flight feathers next spring.