Creature Feature: Great Horned Owl / by Michael Graves

Who’s Awake? Me Too! If you’ve heard this loudly hooted call, you’re among those who have been close to a Great Horned Owl. Since the end of September, a pair have been heard prior to sunrise and again at sunset at locations across the Woodland Heights. Chances are good that they are re-establishing their territory, telling potential competitors that they have a strong pair bond and that no others need apply.

The calls of Great Horned Owls carry for a couple of blocks against the backdrop of freeway noise and up to a mile in the wild. Pairs perform duets, with the male having a rich baritone voice and with the female hooting at a slightly higher pitch. When alarmed, they will bark and make scratchy growls.

It’s best to be content with just hearing these owls, since they are masters of disguise and defy the onlooker and photographer. It’s also strongly advised that you do nothing to annoy them – such as trying to catch them in the beam of a flashlight – since their lives are already hard enough and because they have occasionally been known to use their powerful talons on those they see as a threat, particularly during nesting season in late winter and spring.

Great Horned Owls are stealthy predators, swooping down on wings that produce virtually no sound. They play an important role in helping keep populations of squirrels, rats, mice, and snakes in balance. And though they weigh no more than three pounds, they can take on prey as large as swamp rabbits, raccoons, and possums. As always, it’s best to keep cats and other small pets inside at night when owls, stray dogs, coyotes and cars are on the prowl. The songbirds and other critters on which cats prey will thank you too!

Btw – Great Horned Owls are named for the tufts of feathers they can raise on their heads to look bigger and scarier. The photos show owlets and adult birds (probably the same pair) at spots in the Woodland Heights, Woodland Park and White Oak Park. All photos were taken at a substantial distance with a “superzoom” camera at an equivalent of 1200 mm and then cropped. Please keep your distance and honor the choice that Great Horned Owls make as they share their lives with us, since they are doing their best to fulfill their role as important apex predators in the rapidly diminishing habitat available to them. We are very lucky to have them here, since there are only a few neighborhoods inside of the Beltway where Great Horned Owls raise their young.

- Wendy Wright

Editors note: I’ve routinely seen a pair Great Horned Owls in 11th Street Park, on 11th Street just past TC Jester. I typically see and hear them just as the sun starts to set, toward the southwest corner of the park.