November: Great Horned Owl
The month of November means a few things here in the Philadelphia region – the culmination of gorgeous fall foliage, pumpkin spice occupying every meal thinkable, and time spent around a table or a warm fire with loved ones on a chilly evening. These things help us forget that the daylight hours dwindle in the penultimate month of the calendar year, but while the night encroaches on us sooner and sooner every day, darkness does not always mean an absence of life or, in this case, an absence of birds.
There is no feeling quite like hearing an owl’s midnight conversation with its neighbors. The soft but confident call of an owl can cut through the night like nothing else. At that moment, you can understand why generations of humans have associated owls with otherworldly, ethereal beings. Those unique calls can be discerned by just about anyone willing to throw on an extra layer, take a walk through a local park or a backyard, and bend an ear. And if you’re lucky, November’s bird of the month may be heard. The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), probably the most iconic member of the owl family, is a bird in stark contrast to the other species we’ve looked at this year. Size is the most obvious difference (these owls can reach almost two feet long with a wingspan up to four and a half feet) and looks are quite different as well, but another important distinction is the fact that the great horned owl is an aggressive hunter, not a forager of berries and insects. These birds are born to hunt, as they are nicknamed “tiger owls” and thrive in wide swaths of land spanning from the Alaskan tundra to the southern tip of Chile. The migration doesn’t typically apply to this bird either, but some wander distances southward in the fall and winter.
Let’s start with the physique: the anatomy of the great horned owl is the perfect synergy between elegance and necessity, and I will explain why. Their beauty needs little explanation; between the prominent tufts of feathers atop their heads, to the rippled smokey brown feathers that make up their body and wings, to the pair of huge yellow eyes, a sighting of this bird can make you stop dead in your tracks (speaking from experience here). You normally will spot one perched stoically on a limb as if they were a king or queen on a throne. Regional differences can provide some color variation as well, which can range from an overall sooty tone to a paler one, but nonetheless, you will undoubtedly know when you’ve successfully spotted one. While the owl’s physique is aesthetic to the eye, that is precisely what makes it an expert hunter. Many mammals and reptiles fear the great horned owl, including rabbits, snakes, skunks, lizards, rats, mice, squirrels, opossums, and even other owls, hawks, and geese. These animals typically never want to be in the path of a hungry great horned owl, but the only problem is that they never fully know they’re being targeted until it’s too late.
These birds are masters at stealthily pursuing prey – those colorful feathers are extremely soft, providing reliable warmth and muffling the sound of flight. Short, wide wings allow for quick maneuverability among tree canopies, too. A pair of eyes filled with huge pupils and retinas packed with rod cells provide the night vision necessary for after-hours pursuit, and facial disc feathers on either side of their head pick up sound waves more efficiently. For the final blow, 28 pounds of force is required to open a great horned owl’s talons, making that grip impossible to escape for a small creature. Put all that together and you have one of the top predators in the sky. While the great horned owl may seem like a mythic creature only found in the depths of the forest, these birds can be encouraged to visit local neighborhoods. Building a nest box high up in a tree well before the mating season is your best bet in inviting a breeding pair of owls right to your own backyard.
For more information about the great horned owl, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. And for tips and tricks about attracting other birds you enjoy, visit their Project FeederWatch for community-based tips, resources, and photographs.