This spring around the second-to-last week of May, a neighbour informed me of a Great Horned Owl nest in Tagish. Apparently there were two chicks being observed in the nest, big enough by then that they could be easily seen over the edge of the nest. I had never seen any kind of owl nest before, and was very eager to see this one so the lady I was talking with gave me directions. I checked it out the very next day, but could not spot it. It had been described as being in the lowest of two squirrels nests that were in a scrawny dead spruce tree in a group of three spruce trees on the left-hand side of a driveway. The driveway is totally forested on each side, and I did not spot the particular group of trees. There were squirrels nests everywhere, and I had forgotten the distance in meters that the lady had given me over the phone. The next day my next-door neighbour for the summer (only while I house sit) kindly invited me along with him on a walk down that way so he could show me exactly where the nest was. He pointed out a pair of squirrels nests, and in front of it on a branch was a fuzzy gray tower of fluff. The chick was massive; it looked nearly the size of an adult Great Horned Owl! Further back in the forest we saw the second chick, smaller in size, tucked in a thick spruce. Binocular views revealed great piercing yellow eyes, glaring at us both from within the clouds of gray that would soon be replaced with adult feathers.
These owlets were no longer chicks, but fledglings! Over the next week they stayed around the same spot, often sitting on a branch just off the nest. Occasionally I would glimpse the soft movement of an adult shadowing through the trees. Once, I walked right past one of the parents sitting on a stump just off the road when going to check on the chicks. I only noticed it on my way back, sitting silently with a look of quizzical amusement on its face. Maybe it was laughing at the fact that I had walked right by it without noticing the first time.
On a particularly hot day, the two chicks were in the nest with the sun beating down on them, and both were gasping for air and sweating bullets. The parents were off to the side, enjoying the cool shade of the forest canopy. I felt sorry for the owlets; not only was it hot, but buggy too!
The last time I saw the chicks, right after the Yukon Birdathon, they were sitting some distance away from the nest on a large dead tree with one of their parents. By this time they had grown most of their adult feathers, but still had a fluffy look to them. They were as large as their parents, though one owlet (the eldest I imagine) was substantially larger than the other. This bigger one was more aggressive, and seemed protective of its younger brother or sister. The next time I visited, none of the family were anywhere to be found. I’m so glad I was able to watch these owlets fledge. It was one of the most special birdy things I have been lucky enough to see.
Great Horned Owls (Bubo Virginianous) usually start breeding in February, though they will start courting in the fall and usually mate for life. Once breeding season begins they choose a vacated raven, crow, or in the case of the owls I watched, a squirrel nest in which to lay their eggs. They will also use tree snags, abandoned buildings, and in some cases, man-made nest platforms, though these choices are far less common than the used nest option. On average Great Horned Owls will lay 2 eggs in the nest (such was the case with the ones here in Tagish), which the mother will incubate anywhere from 28 to 37 days, being fed and cared for by her mate. She will brood the chicks constantly after hatching for about 2 more weeks, after which she will begin to brood less. At about six weeks old, the owlets come out of the nest to sit on the surrounding branches. I guess that when I first saw the two owlets, they were about 6 weeks old. A week after their first branching excursion they begin to learn how to fly. Owlets will stay with their parents and even continue begging for food until late fall/early winter, when the time to leave to find their own mates arrives. And so the cycle continues….
Not all owlets find a mate and breed right away. They will often wait for a year, during which they try to find their own territory and are in the meantime considered vagrants, or floaters. Wild Great Horned Owls live 13 years on average, but in captivity they can last for up to 38 years. Very few adults die from predation; usually it is in a confrontation with a large hawk, eagle, or owl. Owlets are preyed upon by Coyotes, Fox, or anything that may see a great opportunity to catch a defenseless chick unguarded. Great Horned Owls themselves have a wide variety of prey; anything skunk-size and smaller can be caught and eaten by these large owls. They are very strong; their wicked-sharp talons can easily crack into your bone if you are ever unlucky enough to have one grab your arm or another appendage! They can attack prey that is up to three times heavier than itself, and Great Horned Owls weigh an average of 3.1lbs. Their average length is 22inches long with a 49inch average wingspan; females are usually larger than the male. Maybe the larger owlet of the two I saw was a female with her younger brother? Great Horned Owls are common across North America and are extremely adaptable. Often if you are out at night you will hear the typical “Hoo-hoo hooo, hoo, hoo” call of one of these owls.
In legend, the Great Horned Owl is considered wise, kind, strong, and a guardian, or else the bringer of death, a fool and a nuisance, or an evil being. There are many First Nation legends about these owls from across the continent. Below is one interesting legend from the Chippewa Tribe.
“There once was a little boy called Redfeather who lived with his great-grandfather. His great-grandfather taught him to shoot with his bow and arrows. They lived in a village near a great big frog-meadow. The old grandfather told Redfeather stories about the different ways of creatures.
Springtime came, and in the evenings the old lady frogs would croak and sharpen their knives to butcher the crawfish. That is the noise they make. Every day Redfeather would take his bow and arrow and kill all the frogs he could get and the crawfish too. One day a heron came along and told Redfeather that she would give him her best feather if he would leave the frogs alone. She told him that she had a nest of babies to feed and that he was wasting her food by killing all the frogs and crayfish. Redfeather said, “Ha! I don’t want your old dirty feathers. You can keep your feathers and leave me alone. I can do what I want.”
So the birds met together to figure out what to do about Redfeather, who was making life difficult for so many of them. Near Redfeathers’s village there was an island with some large trees on it, and on this island lived a very old and very wise owl. Every evening Redfeather would go out and refuse to come in to bed, and run around and be noisy. The crane and the owl and other birds all complained about him because he scared away all the rabbits and small birds. They said he must be punished. The crane said that she was starving because he killed the frogs and the birds. No one could live in peace.
On evening, the owl perched himself on a tree close to Redfeather’s wigwam, and said, “Hoo Hoo!” Redfeather’s great-grandfather said to him, “Redfeather, come in, don’t you hear that owl calling?” But Redfeather said, “I’ll get the biggest arrow and shoot him.” Grandfather said, “The owl has large ears and he can put rabbits and other food in them. He might catch you too. You’d better come in and go to sleep.” But Redfeather disobeyed his Grandfather and went out and shot at the owl. He missed, and while he was out looking for the arrow, the owl swooped down and picked him up and stuck him in his ears, and flew off with him. The owl flew across the lake to his island, and up into an old oak tree where the nest of baby owls were.
He put Redfeather down there, and told his babies, “When you get big enough to eat meat, you shall eat Redfeather.” The little owls were quite excited at this. Then the owl flew away. The next day, the owl called to the crane and the other birds and said, “When your babies are old enough we’ll have a feast of Redfeather. I have him imprisoned in my oak tree.” So Redfeather was kept a prisoner, and he cried, but he couldn’t get down.
Back in the village, all the Indians knew Redfeather was lost. His great-grandfather asked all the living beings to help him find Redfeather and at last they found him a prisoner in the owl’s tree. The spirits told the great-grandfather to give a great feast and ask the owl to return Redfeather. His great-grandfather gave a huge feast, and Redfeather was returned to his great-grandfather. Redfeather also promised that he would never again misuse the food that Wenebojo had made for the birds.”