Do you love the sound of the Great Horned Owl’s hoo-h ‘hoo-hoo-hoo on a dark, cold night? Isn’t it even better when two owls sing a duet?
If you live anywhere in the sub-Arctic in North America, from Alaska to Florida, from New England to Nicaragua, you can make your backyard a welcoming habitat for Great Horned Owls.
The quintessential owl of storybooks, the Great Horned Owl is equally at home in grasslands, wetlands, deserts, forests, cities, and suburban backyards, as long as it has open space for hunting.
Some Interesting Facts About Great Horned Owls
Here are some fascinating factoids about Great Horned Owls to help you understand the kind of backyard habitat they need:
- Great Horned Owls thrive in quiet places. Their disk-like eyes are surrounded by sensitive feathers that funnel sound into their ears, amplifying it as much as 10 times. When they are not distracted by other sounds, they can hear their prey as much as 18 inches (half a meter) under brush, leaves, or snow.
- Great Horned Owls need room to glide down to their catches. Their feathers have combed edges that muffle sound, so they can fly 40 miles an hour (65 kph) silently. But to take advantage of that ability, they need to be perched at least 10 feet (3 meters) above the ground when they take off, flying across an open space at least 20 feet (7 meters) wide.
- Great Horned Owls and crows are not compatible. Great Horned Owls are a crow’s mortal enemy, and groups of 40 to 50 crows will mob a Great Horned Owl to kill it or at least drive it away from their territory.
- Great Horned Owls hunt better in what appears to be total darkness to us humans. Experiments with owls in the dark have concluded that Great Horned Owls don’t see their prey. They don’t need to smell their prey, either. They locate their targets by sound. Night lights just help potential food animals see the owls and flee.
Great Horned Owls aren’t migratory birds. If you provide them with a suitable home, they will stay around all year.
However, since one single backyard isn’t enough for a pair of mating owls to find enough food for their young, it’s best to cooperate with like-minded birdwatchers to create favorable owl habitat.
What Kinds of Backyards Will Great Horned Owls Choose for Home Base?
Great Horned Owls hunt by gliding down from heights to capture mostly mice and insects running or flying across an open space.
They look for leafy trees at the edge of grassy areas to hunt from.
They look for dead trees (snags) with holes in them for nesting spaces, although any tree with a sufficiently large cavity to build a nest will do.
Vegetation is the single most important factor for owls when they are choosing a home.
Once a pair of owls have found a territory, they stake their claim by hooting at trespassing owls.
Even though males are smaller than females, they do most of the fighting to defend their hunting grounds. In extremely cold-winter areas of North America like Alaska and the Yukon, a single male may defend a territory of nearly 4,000 acres (16 km2). Farther south, a single pair of owls may occupy 400 acres (2.1 km2).
This means that owls are more likely to visit your backyard than to build a nest there.
If you do have nesting owls on your property, other birdwatchers are sure to want to know. (Of course, you get to decide whether to tell them.)
But this also means that, unless you own several hundred acres, you will need to cooperate with birdwatchers with similar goals to make sure owls can stay in your area.
Great Horned Owls Need Peace and Quiet
Because Great Horned Owls hunt by sound, not by sight, they need a wide area where it is relatively quiet at night.
Their hunting peaks between 8:30 and midnight and then again between 4 am and sunrise.
They may also hunt during the day for prey that is especially vulnerable during daytime hours, such as squirrels building their nests and lizards sunning on a rock.
If they can’t hear their prey, they won’t find them.
Great Horned Owls also need a minimum of traffic noise and other sounds of human activity to hear each other hoot.
Great Horned Owls that fail to hear the warning hoots of a male defending its territory are likely to get into fights, which are sometimes fatal.
Great Horned Owls also need to be able to hear the begging calls of their young in the nest, to know when to defend them from distress.
Great Horned Owls also need to be approached quietly.
A Great Horned Owl will not attempt to attack a human except in extreme circumstances, such as handling its young.
But Great Horned Owls are understandably afraid of people, and fear of humans can be transmitted genetically to their young, so they too are afraid of people, even if they have never encountered a human on their own.
Tips for Transforming Your Backyard into a Great Horned Owl Haven
Once you are sure that you live in “owl country,” there are a number of things you can do to make sure that owls want to keep your backyard on their nighttime feeding circuit—or even use your property to build their nest.
The secret of attracting Great Horned Owls to your backyard is to provide them with the food, water, nesting sites, and protection they need.
In the case of Great Horned Owls, you need to ensure protection from their biggest predator, other Great Horned Owls.
If you are working with a quiet, spacious suburban habitat, they will be able to sort out their issues with other members of their species on their own.
But there are still a number of things you can do to make your yard more owl-friendly.
Unlike hawks and falcons, Great Horned Owls don’t usually attack songbirds. They prefer to feed on small mammals, like mice and rats.
You can help Great Horned Owls by letting them take care of any outdoor rodent problem.
Instead of putting out traps and poisons, let owls keep rodent pests in check.
You might even leave some grass tall and unmowed or be a little slow about cleaning up brush piles and woodlots to keep some mice and rats for feeding owls.
Or instead of complaining to the neighbors about their grass and brush piles, use them to help feed your owls.
An astonishingly high percentage of backyard Great Horned Owls, about 80%, that are caught and tested are found to have the rat poison Coumadin in their bloodstream.
Although Great Horned Owls are more resistant to rat poison than cats, dogs, and songbirds, they can be weakened by it.
If you want to have owls in your backyard, don’t use rat poison indoors or outdoors.
Great Horned Owls catch the weaker, slower mice and rats that have swallowed the poison but not died of it, and then they are poisoned themselves.
Don’t try to bait Great Horned Owls by putting out raw meat or the kind of mice you can buy to feed snakes.
There’s no guarantee that you wouldn’t be attracting raccoons that can spread disease to your pets or, worse, skunks.
Putting out raw meat in your yard is one way to increase the risk of you or your pets getting sprayed by a skunk at night.
Let Great Horned Owls find their own food, but leave enough food animals for them to survive.
Like hawks and other raptors, owls don’t drink a lot of water.
The reason for this is that they get most of their fluid needs from the blood of the small animals they catch.
However, like other birds, Great Horned Owls occasionally like to splash around in a bird bath to preen their feathers.
They will go to protected, still water any time of year. Heated bird baths are a good option in the winter.
Great Horned Owls build their nests in the hollows of trees as much as 60 feet (18 meters) above the ground.
They aren’t big fans of nesting boxes. Birdhouses and nesting boxes are more likely to attract screech owls.
However, if you do put out large birdhouses for Great Horned Owls, place them at the edges of your property where their leavings (the bones and hair they regurgitate after digesting a meal) won’t be a problem.
Other tips for attracting Great Horned Owls to your backyard include:
- Put outdoor flood lights on timers. Well-lit yards do not appeal to Great Horned Owls. Put floodlights on timers, so owls will have hunting time after you have gone to bed for the night.
- Don’t use poisons to kill insect or rodent pests. Feeding on insects or rodents that have been poisoned can cause toxins to build up in a Great Horned Owl’s body.
- Provide places where Great Horned Owls can eat their prey. They prefer to swallow their food animals whole, but they may need a place to eat undisturbed when they capture and kill larger prey.
- Don’t prune large branches from trees. These provide owls with a place to perch.
Attracting Great Horned Owls to the backyard isn’t for everyone. You should be thinking more in terms of keeping Great Horned Owls away than attracting them if you keep backyard chickens.
And if you really want to focus on songbirds, don’t put up feeders for them when Great Horned Owls are around. Keep smaller pets inside at night.
But if you want to bring Great Horned Owls to your backyard, and you succeed, you have done a service for birdwatchers, and bird listeners, for miles around.
Attracting Great Horned Owls to your landscape is a sign of a balanced ecosystem that provides reliable habitat for many kinds of birds.
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