Sounds of Lathrop Land: The Great Horned Owl

In the past few weeks, each time Sharon and I have walked in the Lathrop woods in the late afternoon, we have heard a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus). You can hear the sound on your computer at The photo above was taken by David Ponton, Getty Images.

You can also hear the sound if you start on the east campus by the blue shed and walk down the wide woods path, across the meadow, and just a little way into the woods beyond. This is perfect territory for our great horned owl: second-growth forest interspersed with fields and meadows.

Our nocturnal owl is setting out from its “nest,” but these owls are clueless about building nests, so they nest in anything they can find, including abandoned flower pots, entrances to dens, or old squirrel nests.

We love to hear the evening “Hoo, H’hoo”, but that sound must strike terror into the heart of every living thing in our forests and fields that’s under about twenty pounds. A great horned owl, also aptly called the “tiger owl,” can take down prey bigger than itself.

The list of what great horned owls have been documented to eat is a real hoot: hares, rabbits, mice, coots, and ducks (these are generally staples of their diet); skunks, ground squirrels, rats, muskrats, tree and flying squirrels, woodchucks, prairie dogs, raccoons, house cats, very small dogs, porcupines, voles, kangaroo rats, pocket gophers, moles, opossums, chipmunks, shrews, bats, bobcat, weasels, geese, herons, loons, mergansers, grebes, rails, pigeons, starlings, other owls up to and including Great Horned Owls, Osprey, crow, raven, hawks, pheasant, bobwhite, Rhinocerus Auklet, chickens, grouse, shorebirds, gulls, egrets, bitterns, woodcocks, doves, woodpeckers, songbirds, lizards, snakes, frogs, toads, salamanders, worms, crayfish, insects, centipedes, scorpions, suckers, chubs, perch, bluegills, sunfish, catfish, bullheads, and eels.

If this list gives you indigestion, well, the owl doesn’t digest it all, either. Every day, the owl spits up a pellet of the indigestible parts of the critters it eats–bones, feathers, and fur.

Despite their omnivorous tastes, the greatest cause of death in young owls is starvation. Once they reach adulthood, they have few natural enemies, but can eat poison or be caught in barbed wire, electrocuted, or shot by hunters, so we humans are their greatest danger. Here at Lathrop, we do everything we can to protect and nurture this fierce and beautiful hunter who fills our winter woods with haunting sounds.


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