By Ranger Steve Mueller
Night is not just a time for sleep. If you are an unlucky insomniac like I sometimes am, get up and listen outdoors. One night I was about to go bed just after midnight when our dog began barking. No one was in the drive but I then I heard a Great Horned Owl hooting.
Usually I cannot hear owls from inside the house. This one was close. As quietly as I could, I opened the front window a couple inches to hear the repeated whoo whoo, whoo whoo. It was pleasantly loud and clear. Typically in January we start hearing the Great Horned Owls conversing just after midnight and again about 5:30 a.m.
The female often stands in the trees between the house and the road. Her voice is deeper than the males. He stands about a quarter mile west of the highway. I have not found their nest. My dog and I were on a walk at dusk when a Great Horned owl flew toward us. As soon it as it saw us, it diverged into the woods. I suspect it heard us and came to investigate what was for breakfast (evening is breakfast time for the owls). It had recently stirred from a day’s rest and was no doubt hungry.
The Great Horned Owl is the largest in our area. The next largest is the Barred Owl and it inhabits low wetland forests compared to the more upland forest of its larger relative. His call is “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you alllllll.” It has a southern droll at the end of second repeat phrase. Usually I hear it in the big woods on my neighbor’s property but have not found its tree cavity nest.
Crows occasionally find an owl during its daytime rest and gather to noisily mob the predator. When I hear a raucous murder of crows, I expect a mob has formed to harass a resting owl or hawk. As long as the owl is stationary, it is fine. When it flies, the mob pursues and tries to peck the bird’s back and head from above and behind.
This week Karen found blood on the snow with rabbit fur but no mammal footprints. An owl had swooped in and successfully captured a meal. I thank the owl for helping save my young trees. The rabbits kill many of the trees by chewing the bark during the winter. The trees are then unable to send spring sap upward and the trees die. Tree and fruit farmers appreciate the free labor from owls and hawks that help reduce agriculture losses.
A third resident species is the Eastern Screech Owl with two color phases. The most common in our area is the gray phase and the other is red phase. They can be siblings much like we can have red and brown haired children. We frequently observe this small 6 to 8 inch tall owl looking at us from a cavity nest box we installed. Its soft voice is a trilling sound. I can imitate it by putting the tip of my tongue against the front roof of my mouth and blowing out. As my tongue vibrates on and off the roof of my mouth, a trilling sound imitates the owl’s call well.
All three owls are common but secretive. They lay eggs during the winter with young ready to fly about the time mammal young abundantly leave their nests. The newly fledged owls help guard our vegetable garden, trees, and reduce the number of rodents coming into the home. We are fortunate our yard is a suitable nature niche for them. Poison rodent baits often do not rapidly kill mice but they later kill owls that eat poisoned mice. Snap traps are an environmentally safer and friendly choice.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the firstname.lastname@example.org Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433, 616-696-1753.