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Wednesday, 05 December 2007 00:00

The winter song of the great horned owl

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As cool dark nights descend upon us to signal the onset of winter, the great horned owls have commenced their annual “singing” along the dark ridges above our home. These great birds don’t sing, of course, in the manner of true songbirds like warblers and orioles — but the quick cadence of four or five hoots (“hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo”) given by the male, or the lower-pitched six to eight hoots (“hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-oo, hoo-oo”) of the female serve the same purpose.

For most living things, winter in these mountains is a time of simple survival. But if you walk the ridges just after dusk this month, there’s a good chance you’ll hear the territorial and mating calls of the so-called “hoot owl,” which, as part of its survival strategy, breeds and lays eggs in the depth of winter.

They obtain a quick start by not building their own nests, appropriating instead the dwelling of a hawk, squirrel, or crow. After adding a few feathers plucked from the female’s breast, they’re in business.

During late January or early February two dull white eggs are laid. Both sexes protect the eggs in all extremes, so that the parents will often be covered by snow or ice. The chicks that appear in late February or early March are blind, helpless, and require full parental care for many weeks. The arduous winter-breeding strategy will now pay dividends since hunting is easier without thick foliage on the trees and the owls can prey with abandon on other bird species just beginning to mate and nest.

Aptly known as “The Tiger of the Night” great horned owls can stand more than two feet tall, with a wingspan of four and a half feet. Its eyes are 35 times more sensitive than those of a human being. The feathered tufts (“horns”) on its head look like ears but aren’t. The real ears are slits hidden among the feathers on the side of the owl’s head. Placed asymmetrically, these slits admit slightly different frequencies to each of the eardrums so that it can differentiate and pinpoint the origin of faint sounds. Specialized wing feathers, downy-fringed like a butterfly’s, enable this predator to move silently in flight. No sound of rushing wings warns the victim of the devastating strike that will be delivered by talons so powerful they can rip through a fencing mask.

Small birds are the preferred food for owlets, but a mature great horned owl can and does feed upon most of the animals it encounters. Those who have studied the bird closely report that one of their favorite foods is skunk, whose stench they don’t seem to mind in the least.

The ancient Cherokees knew the great horned owl as “u-gu-ku” and associated it with darkness, death, and the forces of the evil underworld. But along with Thoreau, I rejoice that there are great horned owls “singing” along the ridges during the long cold winter nights.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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