Although the Red-winged Blackbird may be the first recognizable bird to return in the late winter for its spring forays, there is another bird that is about to start nesting in the next few weeks.
The bird? The Great Horned Owl, which is a permanent, year-round resident found throughout Michigan, although they are more common in the southern Lower Peninsula. They get a head start, laying eggs in late January and early February, incubating them for about 30 days, hatching in the beginning of March.
This coincides with emergence of small mammals from their winter hiding places and from under the snow. The owlets will remain in the nest for up to two months as their parents collect food.
As the weather becomes warmer, mammal babies are abundant and provide enough food to sustain the owlets through the spring and summer. By fall, the owls are booted from their parent’s territory and fend for themselves.
Right now is probably the best time to hear an owl give an unsolicited call. Just go outside about two hours after sunset and listen. Contrary to what you may think, Great Horned Owls are less likely to be found in large, dense forests. They are mostly found in smaller woodlots surrounded by open areas. Hence, they are quite common in our area.
If you learn the call of a Great Horned Owl, amuse your neighbors by bellowing its call. Great Horned Owls are territorial and they defend their turf by vocalizing. You’ll know if you are good if one calls back. You are an excellent owl caller if one swoops over your head and you fall to the ground . . . its been known to happen!
Take a flashlight and a sense of adventure and take a night hike in Yankee Springs Recreation Area in search of owls. Owls around here tend to nest in conifers, and white pines abound at Yankee Springs.
Try hiking the Long Lake Trail or Chief Noonday Trail. The Chief Noonday has several open areas while the Long Lake Trail has many tall white pines. Owls are rarely seen but mostly heard. Moonlit nights are best, as their silhouette is attainable if you keep your eye to the sky.
Two other owls are regularly seen in our area, the Eastern Screech Owl and the Barred Owl. The Eastern Screech Owl is very small, it resembles a baby Great Horned Owl and lives in habitat similar to Great Horned Owls (which eat screech owls!). The Barred Owl can be seen in the daytime and is found in heavily wooded forests along rivers. They give a distinctive “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” call.
If you can find an audio recording of a Great Horned Owl, pick a spot and play about thirty seconds then listen for several minutes. It is important to note that the wild owl sees you as an invader. Once you get him to hoot, don’t play the tape again unless it’s been five minutes or more since you last heard him. You don’t want to scare him off his territory and possibly abandon its nest! This little trick is best done in the fall, when they are done raising their young.