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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Winter Breeding Birds

This may not seem like a typical season for breeding birds, but there is a least one species that has begun the process.

During much of the year I rarely find the Green-Wood Cemetery Great Horned Owls roosting close to each other. Come December, however, they appear to be inseparable. If I can find one, its mate is usually perched a few feet away. As of a couple of weeks ago, our two Brooklyn owls are now in breeding mode and should be on nest within about a month. There is a good reason that they start in the dead of winter - incubation takes about a month; the owlets don't fledge for another month; they rely on learning hunting skills from their parents for another 3 to 5 months. If all goes well, the first brood of Brooklyn Great Horned Owls in probably 100 years will be self sufficient by next Fall.

Separating our female owl from her mate is sometimes a bit tricky. Seen together, there is an obvious difference as the female is significantly larger and bulkier. She also tends to be more vigilant and less tolerant of people. I'll always try my best to be silent when near them, but if I encroach on her comfort zone, she'll open her eyes and shoot me a look like she's preparing to fly down and rip my face off if I don't back off. Fortunately, Great Horned Owls aren't known for that type of aggressive behavior, but I totally get where she's coming from. In addition to her immense size and scary gaze, I've also noticed that she is very gray in color. She does have the characteristic rusty-orange facial disks and wash on her underside, but her forehead and back are a perfect match for gray tree bark.

Compared to our female owl, the male Great Horned Owl is tall and slim, almost like a Long-eared Owl. Unlike the terrifying persona of his mate, he tends to be more easygoing. More often than not, he won't even open his eyes when Marge or I are nearby. Occasionally, he'll lazily peek out of one eye, then go back to snoozing. He is also much more rufous in coloration. As you can see here, his underside is very orange-red. There is also a lot of rusty color on his forehead, whereas the female has almost none at all.

If they do nest again this winter it will be our Brooklyn owl's fourth attempt in as many years. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they are successful and that it is the beginning of the magnificent "king owl's" return to the county of Kings.

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