Jan 9, 2010

Flying Tigers

Journeyman climber Chris Bramlage of Newport was intrigued by a recent request.  A friend of his roommate’s needed someone to hang a few Great Horned Owl nest platforms in some trees, way high in the trees.  Chris can climb anywhere in just about any tree, so climbing 80-foot up a streamside sycamore was really no big deal.  He was just a little taken aback that someone would actually hang the bottom of a 55-gallon plastic drum in a tree – for an owl.


The bottom of a large plastic drum is actually a perfect nest for the owls.  Great Horned Owls don’t make their own nests, instead usually relying on abandoned nests of Red-tailed Hawks, squirrels or hollowed trees.  By nesting in the dead of winter, January and February, these owls don’t have to compete with the hawks and squirrels for nest sites.


Great Horned Owls are North America’s largest owl with ear tufts.  They are frequently referred to as the “Tiger of the Sky” for their fierce demeanor.  Get too close to nesting Great Horned Owls and you’ll likely end up in the emergency room covered with cuts from their lethal talons.  Their powerful talons have the crushing power of 500 pounds per square inch, compared with a human’s paltry 60 pounds per square inch.  Prey caught by Great Horned Owls doesn’t suffer; it is killed instantly.


A Great Horned Owl can easily take prey two to three times larger than itself.  They like to take the largest prey available since smaller prey costs more in energy than is benefited in food.  Common dinner fare consists of other birds, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, mice, snakes and bats.  Since they have no sense of smell, they are one of the few animals that will readily eat skunks.  And don’t be surprised if your cat or small dog doesn’t come back home after a nightly foray.  Several Northern Kentuckians have lost small pets to this efficient and non-discriminate predator.


Great Horned Owls have evolved several adaptations that make them such skilled hunters.  Primarily nocturnal, they have excellent nighttime vision and can see about 100 times better than people can after dark.  Their eyes are fixed forward so when an owl wants to see something off to the side, it must move its whole head.  They have twice as many neck bones as humans, which allow them to rotate their heads 270-degrees, almost full-circle.


Their hearing is as good, if not better, than their eyesight.  One ear is positioned higher than the other, allowing them to hear noises from above and below.  As with other owls, their rounded face forms a facial disc, which acts as a sort of satellite dish, allowing them to receive sounds and funnel them to the ears.


They have up to a 5-foot wingspan, though you’ll never hear the flap of their wings.  They possess “silent flight.”  Their flight feathers are fringed in order to muffle the sound of approach.  Prey never hears them coming.


Now is an excellent time to hear Great Horned Owls.  They have chosen their mates and can often be heard calling to one another.  The duet is a simple call…”hoo, hoo, hoooooo, hoo, hoo.”  The male has a noticeably deeper voice than the female.


Soon the female will be on the nest incubating 2 to 3 eggs.  Incubation lasts about a month.  The male is always close by helping with incubation and feeding the female while she is on the nest.  Once the eggs hatch, both parents feed the ever-hungry chicks.  Young owls start branching at 6 weeks and fledge at around 2 months.  Young stay with their parents through the summer and disperse the following fall to establish territories of their own.


It is never wise to approach a Great Horned Owl nest.  Few birds are as aggressive in defending their nest.  They will continue to attack an intruder until it is either killed or driven off.  Their talons are formidable weapons.


Great Horned Owls are long-lived birds and, other than humans, have few natural enemies.  It is not uncommon for them to live close to 20 years in the wild.


Chris has hung 6 nest platforms for the owls in Northern Kentucky so far this year.  He’s now eager to see if any of these airborne tigers take advantage of the housing he’s afforded them. 


Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at www.woodlandhabitat.com or gaylepille@yahoo.com


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