We are sitting at home, while frigid winds blow outside. It’s hard to believe that in the dead of winter some birds are already nesting. The Great Horned Owl is one of the first.

Among all birds the owls are some of the most fascinating. Here in the Asheville area there are four species of owls that you are most likely to encounter: the Great Horned, the Barred, the Screech, and the Barn Owl. Our smallest owl, the Saw-whet, is also the rarest, and lives at high elevations.

Without a doubt the most impressive owl in North America is the Great Horned Owl, also known as the big hoot owl from the “WHOO WHOO WHOOO WHOO-WHOOO” call it makes. We hear them hooting regularly in our neighborhood, especially during the late fall. This is a very large bird, measuring up to 21 inches in length, and with a wingspan of up to 60 inches. Its name comes from the prominent “ear tufts,” which aren’t actually ears at all. The ears are hidden under feathers near the front of the face below the eyes.

By December Great Horned Owls have already chosen mates and are searching out a nest site. They do not build their own nest, but take over an abandoned crow or red-tailed hawk nest or old squirrel nest, adding not much more than a few feathers for a soft lining. Eggs are laid most commonly in late January or early February, and the female sits on the eggs (usually two) for about a month, with help from her mate who brings food and helps guard the nest. It is not unusual for the female Great Horned Owl to be incubating eggs while the surrounding tree branches are covered with snow. It’s also common for only one of the hatchlings to survive through its first year. Mortality is very high, sometimes due to the harshness of weather during its first days.

The young will stay in the nest for a month after hatching, supplied with an abundance of food (squirrels, chipmunks, moles, small birds) by both parents, skilled nighttime hunters. Great Horned Owls are large, but silent hunters, with soft-edged feathers that flap silently though the night. They have amazingly acute hearing and eyesight, but their sense of smell is apparently minimal. They are one of the few predators that catch and eat skunks!

Check your neighborhood for resident Great Horned Owls. Look for a mound of sticks high up in the trees (40 to 70 feet). Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to see a female owl on the nest.

(Photo by Gary Hume)