The Great Horned Owl - the tiger of the night sky


Winter draws near as the winds blow and the temperature drops. Hoarfrost works its magic during December nights. Just after dawn, crisp white filigree forms on grass blades and weed stems. Hoarfrost is fragile. Just as magically as it appears, it disappears with daylight’s first breath.

December grass is often as brittle as spun glass. It shatters underfoot just as easily.

Simple ice crystals, hoarfrost is as fragile as are snowflakes. It fringes everything it touches. A goldenrod stem becomes a regal scepter glittering with crystals. It transforms the shells of milkweed pods into jewels for Mother Nature’s treasure chest. Dry Queen Anne’s Lace blooms become glittering prizes. Blackberry brambles become thorny stems protecting crystal berries. The reddened Virginia Creeper leaves glisten like rubies and diamonds in the early morning light.

Hoarfrost makes December blossom for just a few hours, bringing brief, transient beauty to a world that stored its finery with the fallen leaves. It brings the stars to earth for a few magical hours.

December is the shortest month, with limited daylight hours. Sounds depressing, especially if you are a person who requires a lot of daylight to stay on track. For working folks, it is difficult to go to work in the dark, and come home in the dark, but still December has its perks.

December belongs to the Great Horned Owl, a permanent resident of the mountains that behaves differently by season.

A stunning creature, the Great Horned Owl is the most powerful of the owls. It has big yellow eyes that are often mentioned in the same breath as wide, big cat eyes. Its facial disc is orange edged in black. Its body feathers are variations of browns and grays with black bar markings. Its white throat is prominent. The feather tufts resembling horns are often mistaken for ears.

The Great Horned Owl is an excellent hunter and equipped for catching prey at night. Its ears allow them to hear even the smallest sound, such as a mouse squeak up to 900 feet away. It uses the-sit-and-wait approach to hunting. It quietly swoops down on prey, catching its meal. Its talons are up to 8 inches long and can clamp down with the force of some 30 pounds. It is apt to glide more than flap its wings, making it easier to move through the forest on silent wings.

It begins to nest in January, making it the earliest to start the regeneration process. It nests during the coldest temperatures of the new year. The hoots and calls in December are communication not only to announce territories but to keep up with each other and to reassure that pair bonds are strong. Pairs disregard courting, obviously feeling it isn’t necessary. Usually a pair remains mated for life. If one dies, the other will seek a new mate to continue to perpetuate the species.

These owls do not bother to build a nest, instead using an old hawk or crow nest. They pick a few feathers off their breast and scatter them around the inside of the appropriated nest and call it home. Both male and female protect the nest fiercely from other birds, animals and even humans.

The cold weather nesting has its advantages. Hunting is easier among leafless trees, and prey is more plentiful before other raptors start feeding their young. Small birds are preferred. Another favorite food is skunk and the stench doesn’t bother the Great Horned Owl.

On a cold December night, the calls between owls make it easy to understand why the Cherokee associated the owl with darkness and death and the forces of the underworld. the Great Horned Owl is also knows as a cat owl, hoot owl, big-eared owl and the “tiger of the sky.”

No owl can turn its head all the way around. It has 14 neck vertebrates that allows it to turn the head 270 degrees, left to right.

Flocks of crows harass the Great Horned Owl, pestering it for hours until it leaves their territory.

These owls are some of the longest-lived birds in the wild, some reaching more than 20 years. The calls and sounds of the Great Horned Owl vary with mood and temperament. When aggravated, it clacks its beak. Young owls shriek or scream for attention.

Listen for the calls in the dead of the December night. River otters breed from December–April. White tail deer shed antlers. Skunks and raccoons sleep during cold weather. Gray squirrels breed from December-February. Female black bears begin to hibernate.

Keep out plenty of fresh water for drinking and bathing.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.