Among most common and widespread owl species in North America, they’re well adapted to survive in mountain, forest, prairie, and yes, urban habitats.
BOZEMAN, Mont. — Denver Holt knows owls.
As president of the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, Mont., Holt has spent years studying the habitat and habits of owls in western Montana. During that time Holt has felt the sting of sharp talons, seen up close the damage they can inflict.
“I have been hit in the head, the back and the butt,” Holt said on a recent Monday. “I know exactly what the talons feel like — very sharp and capable of defending a nest and killing prey.”
For a pair of fledgling great horned owls roosting in a pine tree near downtown Bozeman, those sharp talons — and the knowledge and expertise to use them as successful predators — will be essential for survival.
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Great horned owls breed every year and generally give birth to two or three owlets. The mother incubates the chicken-sized eggs during March. The fledglings hatch and emerge from the nest in late March or early April.
“Great horned owls grow extremely fast,” said Becky Kean, executive director of the Montana Raptor Conservation Center, in Bozeman. “If they hatch in the beginning of April they will leave the nest and start venturing out in May. They will be almost as big as the adults by the end of May.”
During the daytime, fledgling owls roost with their parents in trees, cliffs and other inconspicuous spots. Owls rely on stealth and the ability to disappear into their environment for survival.
In a peculiar bit of evolutionary adaptation, great horned owls may have developed their characteristic tufts, which emerge from the head above each eye, as camouflage. The “horns” may appear as branches or twigs, allowing the great horned owl to disappear in surrounding habitat.
“There is no experimental evidence, but we think (the tufts) provide concealment,” Holt said. “If something comes near the owl you’ll see those tufts erected. It’s one of the things they do in concert to render themselves inconspicuous.”
Fledgling great horned owls emerge from the nest with downy plumage. These juvenile feathers do not provide the camouflage of an adult bird. Before developing flight feathers owlets are more easily detected and wholly reliant on their parents for food.
The father provides for the fledglings during the first months of their lives. Owls use sharp eyesight, exceptional hearing, a powerful beak, silent flight and those razor talons to kill prey species during evening hunts.
“Owls eat a variety — birds, mice, other owls — they are ferocious,” Kean said. “I went to a nest once and saw a deer leg. I have seen magpie parts and pieces too.”
While the mother may do some hunting, she generally acts as the nurturer during the fledglings’ early life. The owlets feed, grow and observe their parents’ hunting behavior from the roost, hopefully learning to fend for themselves.
“They have to learn how to fly and how to hunt and that process could take them well into the summer,” Holt said. “They will bum food from their parents as long as they possibly can.”
Great horned owls don’t have teeth. Instead, they swallow small prey whole, usually head first. For larger prey like rabbits or skunks, adult owls will use their talons and beak to rend the animal into bits. They’ll feed the fledglings small pieces of flesh during the early months, working up to whole animals by the middle of the summer.
Adult great horned owls stand 22 inches tall and have a 44-inch wingspan. The adult birds weigh approximately three pounds and can live 15 years or more in the wild.
Great horned owls are one of the most common and widespread owl species in North America, well adapted to survive in mountain, forest, prairie, and yes, urban habitats.
“Every farm and ranch has a pair,” Holt said. “You have probably walked by more owls than you have ever seen, and especially the great horned owl.”
The fledglings near downtown Bozeman will likely continue to roost in the area for the remainder of the summer until they learn to fly and fend for themselves. If they are successful, they’ll leave their mom and dad behind and stake out a home to call their own.
With any luck, you might just walk by one of them and not even know they’re there.
“Owls are nocturnal and we don’t see them or hear them very often,” Kean said. “They are a little mysterious.”