Monday, December 01, 2008

Owl Courtship

When you think of birds courting, displaying and breeding, you most likely start thinking about spring. It's when sage grouse strut, turkeys gobble, ducks pair off and robins build nests.

But great horned owls begin calling to potential mates as early as October. They will pair off this month. They can often be heard calling to each other at this time--what is called "duetting." Perhaps you've heard this recently. Over the weekend, two were calling just outside our bedroom window--a dramatic series of calls that only faintly resembled hooting. On a long walk, I came across another pair hooting to each other. One was so intent it was not bothered by my presence, despite me standing just a few feet away.

The owls will breed in January and February--among the earliest of any birds on the continent. If you take an evening walk this month, listen carefully--you may hear the haunting hoots echoing across the landscape.

And you have a good chance of hearing great horned owls wherever you are in Idaho. They are one of the most adaptable birds in the Americas, found from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, in small woodlots and vast wilderness, in sagebrush and city parks, in deserts and along rivers. The same, by the way, is not true of all owls. Great horned owls may be very adaptable to a wide variety of habitats, but many owl species have very specific needs. Like burrowing owls (pictured above).

These little owls actually live underground in abandoned holes. They thrive in grassland and shrubland. They can be spotted in the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in Idaho, but their real stronghold once was the Great Plains, where they lived among the vast herds of bison and huge prairie dog colonies.

One can only imagine how many of these owls could be found on the plains. I had a taste of what it must have been like on a recent trip to Colombia, in the Orinoco Grasslands. There, one of the most intact grasslands left on earth, burrowing owls were all over the place. One rancher told a story of catching 20 by hand as a youngster (her mother made her return the owls to their burrows).

Owls are, to my mind, among the coolest looking creatures on the planet, and burrowing owls especially so. Some, like great horned owls, will thrive without our help. But many other species need our help to survive. --Matt Miller

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