Why Great Horned Owls Start Nesting in the Winter

When many other birds head south for warmer weather, these raptors pair up and hunker down.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of The National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


This is BirdNote!

On a chilly day, mid-winter, you notice a large nest made of sticks high in a leafless cottonwood. Atop the nest sits a large, dark shape, its broad head sporting two ear-like tufts, suggesting a cat’s ears. A female Great Horned Owl is incubating two eggs. A light snow falls on her back, as her mate roosts unseen in a nearby conifer. Since December, this pair has been hooting back and forth regularly at night.

Why risk the year’s most severe weather by nesting now? Probably because Great Horned owlets, which hatch after a month of incubation, must remain near their parents a long time compared to many other birds — right through summer and into early fall. During this time, young owls learn the skills they need to hunt on their own — before the rigors of the next winter set in.

This adaptive strategy has proven very successful: Great Horned Owls are the supreme predatory night birds from the northernmost forests of Canada to Tierra del Fuego.

For BirdNote, I’m Mary McCann.


Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Single Great Horned Owl recorded by W.L. Hershberger; pair, by W.R. Fish.

Winter wind Nature SFX Essentials #2 recorded by Gordon Hempton of Quiet.Planet.com.

BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

Written by Bob Sundstrom

Producer: John Kessler

Narrator: Mary McCannNarrator: Mary McCann

Executive Producer: Chris Peterson

© 2016 Tune In to Nature.org    January 2014/2018/2020   

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