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The Wetland Explorer
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This is a picture of a great horned owl.

As I’ve let my dogs outside the last several nights at my country home, I’ve smiled as I’ve heard a “hoo-hoo-hoo” sound coming from a nearby tree. One of my favorite bird sounds, and recognizable by most, this is the distinct call of a great horned owl.

Most people know that one of the main functions of bird calls and songs by birds is for attracting mates. It is also typical to think of spring being the typical mating season for many birds. So, why are owls being particularly vocal in the middle of December? Surprisingly, late fall and early winter is prime mating season for several of Kansas’s early breeders. Great horned owls are one of those species. And, inevitably, the owls I am hearing around my house are in full courtship mode.

Great horned owls are one of Kansas’s earliest nesting species. Pairs of owls often “mate for life” and will stick relatively close together for much of the year. Courtship begins in late fall, and pairs of owls will call loudly back and forth through much of the night. By early winter, they begin searching for a nest location which is usually in a tree. But, great horned owls typically do not build their own nest, rather they prefer to adopt the abandoned nest of another raptor or squirrel, so about any cavity will work. They may line the nest with bark, leaves, or feathers. By mid to late January, great horned owls are already incubating their one to four egg clutches.

Why so early? Nesting this early in the winter comes with some obvious challenges. If eggs are left uncovered, they will easily freeze in the cold temperatures of winter. Male and female owls will take turns incubating the eggs to prevent exposure. There is a payoff to this early breeding season. Young owls take much longer to develop than smaller songbird counterparts, so getting a jump on hatching is a must. Additionally, being a bird of prey, young owls can more easily hone their hunting skills during the spring months when prey is abundant, active, and easy to catch.

Great horned owls are not the only local species that gets an early jump on breeding. Other raptors are also known early breeders in Kansas. Many bald eagles begin forming nests in January with most eggs laid in February. Red-tailed hawks are a little later with courtship occurring from January through February and most eggs laid in March.

One report from eastern Kansas this year, confirmed a bald eagle already sitting on eggs on November 21. This is over a month earlier than the earliest observed bald eagle nesting in Kansas. We’ll hope that they are successful.

Over the coming weeks, keep your eyes peeled and ears open for nesting owls. They are hooting it up all night and will soon be sitting on nests. Spring can’t be too far away, right?