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Hooting great horned owls celebrate Valentine’s Day

Joan Sayre took this photo of a great horned owl in her Libertyville back yard. The adult owls raised two young, which she saw in early June two years ago.

Joan Sayre took this photo of a great horned owl in her Libertyville back yard. The adult owls raised two young, which she saw in early June two years ago.

Beneath a full moon on a cold, winter’s evening, the pair begins its courtship duet. Hoo hoo hoooo hooo hoo, he bellows atop a walnut tree in Mundelein. Hoo hoo hooooo hoo hoo, she responds.
In the deepest part of winter, they have declared their love for one another, and by Valentine’s Day, she very likely will be sitting on a nest of two, round white eggs as the wind blows flurries around her.

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Great horned owls are the true Valentines of Illinois, starting a family in the middle of winter and courting after midnight while humans are asleep.

They can fairly easily be found in winter if you know how to look and listen for them, said Bob Fisher, president of the Illinois Ornithological Society.

In January, Bob Fisher and his wife usually hear great horned owls calling in their back yard home in DuPage County.
Mundelein resident Eric Lundquist recently saw a great horned owl land on his chimney and start calling. A few years ago, he found a nest with two young in the middle of Mundelein.

“It’s great to see that they can do so well in an urban habitat,” Lundquist said.

The great horned owl has lost some of its hunting habitat, as fields become occupied by development. But because it has a varied diet– it will eat just about anything–it continues to flourish. This owl eats rats, mice, birds, crayfish, young fox and in northern Illinois, the ubiquitous rabbit.

Widespread throughout North America, the great horned owl begins its courtship as early as October in northern Illinois. From October through early February, their hoots give away their presence.

As the time draws near to lay eggs, the great horned owl becomes very vocal. Night after night, and sometimes even during the day, the male and female call to one another, according to Patricia and Clay Sutton, authors of   “How to spot an owl.”  The male utters a deep, resonant series of hoos, and the female answers the hoos in a slightly higher pitch.

Local forest preserves often host owl prowls for those who want the chance to see or hear one of these enigmatic creatures. Observers also can go out on their own by seeking wooded areas near fields during the day, then returning there to listen at night. But as is evidenced by Fisher’s and Lundquist’s stories, those who want to hear owls often just have to sit quietly in their homes at night November through February and listen for the hooting.

Listen to great horned owl sounds

The courting couple keep in close contact at night choosing an old red-tailed hawk, crow or squirrel nest in which the female will lay her eggs. There’s no time or need to build a nest.

When not declaring their love for one another, these birds are hunting for food, using their keen sense of hearing to detect the quiet rustle of a mouse in the snow.

The ears of most owls are asymmetric, with one higher than the other so they can triangulate on their prey. The horns on the great horned owl are not the ears, but rather tufts of feathers used for camouflage. Their ears are slits on either side of their head. The owl’s facial disc improves its hearing by reflecting sound to its ears. The prey cannot hear the owl swooping in for the attack because most owl species have mufflers on their wings–serrations on the edges that quiet the noise.

Once the female is on eggs, the owls become quiet. Camouflaged in her nest, the females sits on eggs waiting for the young to hatch and for her mate to bring her food.
Those who are patient like Lundquist might find the nest by returning to the area where they were heard calling and be rewarded with the sight of fuzzy owlets in the nest in April and May.

Keeping one’s distance from great horned owls is crucial. Great horned owls fiercely defend their territories, and whatever gets too close be it human or a wild animal can be attacked by the birds with talons as large as the size of a human fist.

Mary Julie Pfingsten, who lives next to a Lake County Forest Preserve, said recently she heard a pair of great horned owls calling at night.

“I went outside and walked to the edge of the forest preserve and a great horned owl flew in really close,” she said. “It was rather scary.” Knowing the size of its talons and that she might be in its territory, Pfingsten slipped back inside, leaving the owl to continue its night-time hunt.

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