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Great Horns Hoot in Winter

Dear Bird Folks,

My wife is superstitious and she is worried because we have been hearing owls hooting almost every night for the past week. She thinks tht it is a bad sign. Is it normal to hear owls in the winter or could it be a bad sign?”

Peter, Harwich


Relax Peter:

Hearing owls calling is not a bad sign unless you happen to be a rabbit, then you are in big trouble. You’re not a rabbit, are you? You can never be sure with a name like Peter. The owl that you are hearing is a Great Horned Owl and it always calls this time of year, not to scare your wife (that’s your kids’ job), but because it is nesting. That’s right, your owl has set up a territory in your neighborhood and is nesting in the middle of the winter.

Great Horned Owls are very early nesters. It is quite common to see an owl sitting on a nest while snow is coming down. February is winter for us, but it is spring for the owls. It is thought that the reason these owls breed so early is so they can hunt food for their young chicks before the new spring foliage hides all the prey. And food for these ferocious birds can be almost anything that moves. They eat snakes, birds, frogs, fish and just about any mammal, from mice to skunks to unattended cats.

Another reason that owls nest early is that they don’t build their own nests, they simply steal someone else’s. Their nest of choice seems to be an old Red Tailed Hawk’s nest. By nesting before the hawks return to their nest, the owls can lay claim and force the hawks to build somewhere else. The hawks could challenge the owls for the nest, in which case the owls would simply eat the hawks. The hawks would provide the owls with both room and board.

The hooting that you hear is the male owl announcing its territory. During courting, the female sometimes answers back. Her hoots are shorter and higher pitched than the male’s. The male’s hoot has a much deeper tone, probably from too much smoking when he was younger.

So tell your wife to chill out, the owls are nothing for her to worry about unless she wears a fur coat. Then, for her safety, she should keep it in the closet until the owls have moved on. Or better yet, she should return the coat to the animal to whom it used to belong.