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Zoo-ology: Give a hoot for great horned owl

By Victoria Advocate
July 17, 2011 at 2:17 a.m.

Great Horned Owl

By Judie Farnsworth

Owls are spectacular birds, and the great horned owl is one of the most impressive. It's the largest owl we see in Texas and sometimes called a hoot owl or cat owl.

Its head, large orange-yellow eyes and feather tufts resembling ears can make it appear quite cat-like. The tufts have nothing to do with hearing, but help with camouflage.

Most active at night (nocturnal), these owls call with sounds ranging from deep hoots to shrieks. The male's deeper territorial call, "hoo-hoo hoooooo hoo-hoo," can be heard over several miles on a quiet night.

The great horned owl is a carnivore (meat-eater) and stealth hunter, gliding silently above the ground or diving from high perches with wings folded. Prey is usually killed instantly when hit by this owl's powerful talons. It may walk on the ground to catch small prey, or wade into water for frogs and fish.

Strong enough to take mammals two or three times its weight, it's one of the only hunters to include skunk on its menu. Most birds have no appreciable sense of smell, so eau de skunk isn't a problem. Sight and hearing are its primary senses.

Great horned owls may live 13 years in the wild and have been known to live 29 to 38 years in captivity.

They nest once a year, in January or February. Nests of other large birds, such as hawk or crow, as well as squirrel's nests, hollow trees or vacant buildings are used.

Two to three eggs are typically produced and pairs stay together during nesting season. Both may incubate the eggs and the male also brings food for their baby owls, which are called owlets.

These owls are very aggressive while nesting - and why not? They have some of the most spectacular babies to care for. The owlets graduate to brancher status at 6 or 7 weeks, when they venture from the nest to tree limbs.

They won't fly well until 9 or 10 weeks old and are gradually weaned.

Families stay loosely associated during the summer and separate in the fall.

Adults may remain with the same mate for years, but after nesting, they are solitary within their breeding areas for the remainder of the year. Their area usually covers about a square mile.

If an owlet is found, leave it alone. A worried parent can cause serious injury and may continue attacking until an intruder is driven off. A snapping or clacking beak is a somber warning. An owl rolling onto its back with feet up means - don't even think about it.

Owls, like nearly all wild birds, are protected by federal law. It's illegal to interfere with or have them in your possession without special permits.

There are two beautiful great horned owls on exhibit at The Texas Zoo.

We also have a juvenile-in-training. His name is Farnsworth, and we hope he will be able to participate in owl prowls and educational programs. His intense eyes peer from the rapidly changing soft grey down covering him.

He's beyond brancher and now a fledgling. He's learning to fly to a glove. You'll love him.

Judie Farnsworth is a long time volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.

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