Enjoy the hooting season

Post by Jen Berlinghof

In February, sensational sunrises and sunsets break up the stark days and cold, dark nights of a waning winter. Dawn and dusk not only bring the thrill of color to a monochrome landscape, but also the best chance of hearing and seeing nocturnal raptors. As the mercury drops, owl courtship heats up. While many other birds head south for winter, owls pair up and hunker down. At night, the soundtrack of our resident species’ hoots and hollers fills the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, offering us a glimpse into an otherwise hidden world.

Winter is a time of snow, beautiful sunsets—and mating season for local owls. Photo © John D. Kavc.
Winter is a time of snow, beautiful sunrises and sunsets—and mating season for local owls. Photo © John D. Kavc.

The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is the largest of our resident owls, and also the earliest bird to kick off courtship and nesting in Lake County. Because owlets have a steep learning curve, spending months learning the specialty skills of nighttime flying and hunting, parent owls need to get a head start on breeding. Hooting duets echo through otherwise silent snowy evenings beginning in December, as pair bonding starts for these monogamous birds.

Owls don’t build their own nests, but rather search out a “fixer upper”—an abandoned crow or red-tailed hawk nest will do. So will a tree snag. Hearing the booming sounds of a great horned owl, and then seeing it swoop past on silent wings, has been a hallmark of many evening events at Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods for me over the years. Great horned owls will start to quiet down toward the end of February as egg laying begins. (Check out the archives of our Nature Cam for an in-depth look at great horned owlets fledging.)

An adult great horned owl peeks over the top of its snow-dusted nest. Photo © Phil Hauck.
An adult great horned owl peeks over the top of its snow-dusted nest. Photo © Phil Hauck.
Two great horned owlets peer out of a cavity in a tree snag. Photo © Phil Hauck.
Two great horned owlets peer out of a cavity in a tree snag. Photo © Phil Hauck.

Just as the hooting subsides from the great horned owls, the brown-eyed barred owls (Strix varia) begin to chime in. While it’s possible to hear both owl species on the same evening, barred owls might pipe down if great horned owls are calling vigorously, given that the larger great horned is a known predator for the smaller barred. The great horned owl’s call is said to ask us, “Who’s awake? Me too!” while the barred owl calls, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”

Barred owls are partial to floodplain forests and can often be seen feeding during the day. I once watched in amazement as a barred owl slurped down a snake like a spaghetti noodle while I was taking my own lunch break at Lakewood in Wauconda. Barred owls gravitate toward natural cavities in large trees for nesting. Their young can climb these trees in an effort to test out flying and to strengthen their wings. It’s quite a sight to see fluffy owlets grasping the bark with their sharp bills and clinging on with dagger-like talons, all the while flapping their wings as they shimmy up a tree.

An adult barred owl in spring. Photo © John D. Kavc.
An adult barred owl in spring. Photo © John D. Kavc.
An over-the-shoulder (or over-the-wing?) glance from a barred owl fledgling. Photo © Tim Elliott.
An over-the-shoulder (or over-the-wing?) glance from a barred owl fledgling. Photo © Tim Elliott.

Last but not least is the smallest of our local owls, the American robin-sized eastern screech owl (Megascops asio). Males return to a previous year’s breeding site first to reclaim their territory by roosting in the tree cavity and calling from nearby branches, typically after the first of the year. Screech owl calls are vastly different from the baritone hoots of our larger species. They’re composed of horse-like whinnies and soft trills.

The female joins the male in late February or early March. They celebrate their reunion with mutual preening, bowing, clicking of bills and trilling in duet. Found in many areas, screech owls can nest anywhere they find a tree with an old woodpecker hole or nest box. Nestling screech owls fight fiercely among themselves for food, and sometimes even kill their smallest sibling. This behavior is not uncommon among raptors in general.

Any time I spy a hole in a tree, I always peek with my binoculars to see if I get lucky and see a sweet screech face nestled inside. In 20 years of working for the Forest Preserves, I only hit this jackpot once at Greenbelt in North Chicago. I continue to look, hoping for another encounter.

Two eastern screech owls perch on a branch. This species has gray and rufous (reddish-brown) morphs, or color phases. About a third of individuals are rufous. Stock photo.
Two eastern screech owls perch on a branch. This species has gray and rufous (reddish-brown) morphs, or color phases. About a third of individuals are rufous. Stock photo.

Owling takes real effort. It takes bundling up and heading outside into the blue-black chill of winter nights when you might rather be cuddled up inside near a fire. But the reward comes in the quiet glow of a winter sunset, where the silence of the moonrise is cracked by the chorus of howling owls. Enjoy this winter wonder in your own yard. Better yet, head out to the solar-lit trails at Old School in Mettawa and at Lakewood, open until 9 pm nightly through March 13. And if you’re looking for birdwatching opportunities this spring, mark your calendars for our FREE Birdwatching Hot Spots programs on March 19, April 23 and May 21. Locations vary each month. No registration required.

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