As February greets us with more chilly days, some of us may find escape in the amorous tidings of Valentine’s Day. Regardless of your traditions on the 14th, the holiday reflects how centuries of humans have celebrated the pair bond, a common form of partnership in our species. Although widely observed in humans, we are among only 3-5 percent of mammal species to practice monogamy. Throughout the animal kingdom however, we are certainly not unique in our ability to find and remain with only one mate. In comparison, 90 percent of known bird species are monogamous, with pairs sticking together for at least one breeding season. Some of these species are even known to mate with one partner for life. One terrific example is the Great Horned Owl. During its lifetime of 5 to 15 years, the Great Horned Owl will hunt, raise young and defend territory with only one partner.
In January and February, Great Horned Owls start courting and occupying nests together. These majestic birds of prey can be identified by their large size, yellow eyes and tufts of feathers resembling horns on their head. Females are typically larger than males, while males have a lower-pitched call. Two owls begin courtship when the male and female hoot to one another. They approach each other and bow, after which they might rub their bills together or preen the other’s feathers. They begin nesting by taking over a tree cavity or a nest abandoned by hawks, eagles, herons, crows or squirrels. Owls generally do not create their own nests nor are the nests customarily used multiple years due to the deterioration incurred throughout the nesting season. The female will lay 1-4 eggs per brood, which she then incubates for a period of 30-40 days.
During nesting, males typically hunt food for the pair, which mostly consists of small mammals and birds in winter, but is supplemented with fish, reptiles and amphibians in other seasons. The Great Horned Owl is a ferocious predator with the most diverse diet of all North American raptors. It has been known to attack larger animals such as skunks, woodchucks, porcupines and even foxes! This fierce nature also manifests when both parents defend their nest from predators, even from large threats such as humans. Humans pose the greatest threat to Great Horned Owls, with members of their own species as the second most common enemy.
Great Horned Owls will protect their territory by exhibiting several behaviors. Both males and females have an impressive array of hoots, which they use to loudly scare away potential threats. They might clap their bills, hiss or scream at intruders, and then attack them if necessary. If the Great Horned Owls’ various tactics to protect their offspring succeed, the young will begin to explore outside of the nest at around 5 weeks old. At 9 or 10 weeks old, they will have the ability to fly. Both parents continue to feed and care for the young for several months until they become independent.
Stop by Kroening Interpretive Center at North Mississippi Regional Park to see a Great Horned Owl display and learn more about this magnificent species. Join us for free Early Birding the first Saturday of the month. Or, sign up for one of our evening Snowshoe programs to listen and look for owls. You can also observe Minnesota birds from indoors, as you watch the feeder station outside our large display window. Spend your Saturdays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at our Naturalist’s Nature Table for a themed activity and craft, and stop by on Sundays for Family Funday from 12:30-3:30 p.m. Visit the Interpretive Center and fall in love with our new education animal, a delightful six-month old fox snake.
February Public Programs (all children under 12 are free, but must be accompanied by a registered adult): Feb. 4 – Early Birding – search for birds while on a naturalist-guided hike, 9-10:30 a.m., free for all ages; Feb. 10 – Snowshoeing Under the Full Moon – practice spotting wildlife with only the light of the moon, 7-8:30 p.m., $5, ages 5+; Feb. 11 and 25 – snowshoeing – borrow snowshoes to explore the park, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., free for all ages; Feb. 14 – Valentine’s Day Snowshoeing, 5-6:30 p.m. and 7-8:30 p.m., $5 ages 18+; Feb. 19 – Winter Arts and Animals – make seasonal art and meet live MN creatures, 1-3 p.m., free for all ages.
For info or to register for programs at North Mississippi visit minneapolisparks.org and like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what’s happening in our park!