Friday is Valentine’s Day, and the chocolate, flower and restaurant businesses will be booming.
But, for those who would prefer a romantic night under the full moon, join Durango Nature Studies for a special Valentine’s full moon snowshoe hike. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll be joined in the dusky night by a silent and stealthy great horned owl protecting his nest and his young.
The great horned owl is one of the earliest breeding birds in North America. Owls breed in late January because of the lengthy nightfall during this time of the year. Owls do not build their own nests, but take over abandoned hawk, crow or magpie nests. At most, they might line them with feathers.
Great horned owls are an apropos bird to seek out on Valentine’s Day. They live in monogamous pairs and usually mate for life. In February, one to five eggs will hatch after both male and female have shared incubation duties. Owls are fiercely protective parents and have even been known to attack humans that wander too close to their young.
The idea of a Valentine’s dinner for a pair of star-crossed great horned owls is not for one of the weak of stomach. These birds have an incredible digestive system. They sometimes swallow their prey whole and later regurgitate pellets composed of bone, fur and the other unwanted parts of their meal. (Students in one of Durango Nature Studies’ programs, “All About Owls,” get the experience of dissecting one of these pellets to search for bones of their prey.)
Owls are efficient nighttime hunters that strike from above and use their powerful talons to kill and carry animals several times heavier than themselves. Owls prey on a huge variety of creatures, including raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, domestic birds, falcons and other owls. They regularly eat skunks and may be the only animal with such an appetite.
Owls have spectacular binocular vision, allowing them to pinpoint prey and see in low light. The eyes of a great horned owl are nearly as large as those of a human and are immobile within their circular bone sockets. As a result, instead of turning its eyes, an owl must turn its whole head, the neck capable of rotating a full 270 degrees, in order to see in various directions without moving its entire body.
As monogamous pairs, great horned owls can expect to be together for the long haul. There are no predators of adult great horned owls, but they may be killed in confrontations with eagles. Wild owls have a maximum recorded lifespan of 13 years, while those in captivity may live up to an astonishing 38 years. Most mortality today is human-related.
Because great horned owls are nocturnal, well-camouflaged and silent in their movements, they can be hard to spot. Often the best way to spot them is while they are roosting during the day because of the swarm of crows that on occasion surrounds them. Because great horned owls are one of the leading predators of crows, they sometimes congregate from a considerable distance to mob an owl and caw angrily at him.
But, at night, the best way to detect a great horned owl is by the beautiful “hoo h’hoo” of one mate calling to another. There is nothing more beautiful or, at the risk of personifying the great horned owl further, romantic.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 382-9244. Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies.