I have written about it before but – now is the best time to listen for Great Horned Owls. Great Horned Owls ready to nest and reproduce for the first time will have ‘Christmas Shopped’ for mates, pairing up throughout December. During the months of January and February they will have selected nesting sites and started tending newly laid eggs. Few of the owls in question will actually build a nest. They will either select a large cavity in a tree or take over the nest of some other bird –Great Blue Heron, Red Tailed Hawk, Crow, etc. The other birds do not generally mind too much –at least not enough to argue with the Great Horned Owls about it –as they don’t nest in the winter. Sometimes the Great Horned Owls will take over a squirrel nest. Squirrels do use their nests in the winter and do mind them being taken over but –well, it’s kind of a sad story. Nature is harsh! At any rate, the Great Horned Owls will incubate their eggs throughthe deep winter months and hatch out chicks while there is still plenty of cold and snowleft. (Note –this is not the universal case. Great Horned Owls are the most widely spread of the eleven North American Owl species and live as far south as Mexico.)
Whooooh whooo (sorry) would choose to nest in a bare cottonwood in the middle of winter in Northeast Ohio?! Well, the owls are year-round –non-migratory –residents and are going to put up with the cold at any rate. The Great Horned Owls are also very adaptable eaters, having the most varied diet of our eleven species as well. They eat anything they can catch – including cats, small dogs, and other raptors –as large as Red Tailed Hawks. Winter is a pretty good hunting time for them. There is less cover and all those rodents are out searching for food. And, the Great Horned Owl chicks are ready to fledge as early as March –just in time to begin their career as young hunters when all the migratory birds are coming back and setting up to nest, all the small mammals and reptiles start having babies, etc. It works out.
But – back to my original point. If you want to hear the Great Horned Owls, now is your chance! The mating and nesting is the vocal season for almost all birds. Put on a coat and hat and go stand outside (the church parking lot is a prime location) in the still of the night and just be quiet for a while. When you hear that double hoot, try answering back.The Great Horned Owls are usually good for at least a short conversation and once in a while, one will actually come to see who’s calling. But when you hear them, know that a whole invisible (to you) world is going on out there: courting and nesting and hunting and fledging – life and death – and all most of us will ever perceive of it is ‘hooo hoooo’ –and that only if we go out in the cold and dark to listen.
There is another unseen world operating all around us where the stakes are even higher. Far too many people are even more completely ignorant of it than they are of the world of the Great Horned Owl – but it’s there and at least the echoes of it can be heard by those who will take the trouble to listen. Ephesians 6:12
I saw another Red Bellied Hawk recently. First, I should admit that no ornithologist would call it that. Too bad! Second, there are other types of hawks than the one I have in mindthat have red bellies - the Red-Shouldered Hawk, the Kestrel (technically a falcon) and the Asian rufous bellied hawk/eagle (ornithologists do not agree as to what this bird is). What I have in mind is properly called the rufous morph of the Red-Tailed Hawk. I first became aware of the morph when my friend Willard Berkebile showed me a picture of one that hunted the area around his home. My research at the time indicated the morph was rare outside the American north-west. Since I have seen two more - both in central Indiana (Morgan and Putnam Counties). It turns out there are fourteen recognized sub-species of the Red-Tailed Hawk - more or less. One has to allow for a lot of argument about the difference between "morphs" and "sub-species" and the darkest Red Tail morph as recognized by some seek out other dark morphs for breeding and establish independent populations. The rufous morphs aren't at that point - at least yet.
Some ornithologists speculate that the Ruphous morphs enjoy a selective advantage in that they are rare enough and just different enough from the majority population to be mistaken by prey animals for something less dangerous. Really big Robins perhaps? There is no research to support this theory yet. In fact, the one detailed study of Red-Tailed Hawk morphs I could find seems to suggest the opposite. The study is titled - Differential Perch Site Selection by Morphs of the Red-Tailed Hawk. A large number of Red-Tailed Hawks winter in Benton County, Arkansas - including lots of morphs. Two seasons of observation produced this major conclusion - the darker the morph, (the rufous morph is considered darker than the standard model) the more likely it would perch lower and among more covering branches. The study author speculated that darker morphs stand out to prey and thus sacrifice broader and clearer field of vision over the hunting grounds in favor of concealment. The author also made the same conclusion as every other author of every study of any sort I have ever read - more study is needed!
Nevertheless, the "need for concealment theory" makes more sense to me than the 'really big robin theory'. Against the open sky- darker birds create a bolder profile than lighter birds. Or, maybe the lighter birds are just working on their tans. We'll go with the bolder profile thing. Unlike pack predators preying on herd animals, solo ambush predators have a need not to be recognized prior to the moment the claws make contact. Concealment, cover, disguise - these are the tools of the ambush predator.
"But what I do, I will also continue to do, that I may cut off the opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the things of which they boast. For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works." II Corinthians 11:12-15.