Ask Us Anything: Great Horned Owl Live Cam

2022 season

An adult Great Horned owl perches in a willow tree above a stick nest. It is partially hidden behind branches.

Have a question about Great Horned Owls, or something you saw on the Explore.org Great Horned Owl Live Cam?


Submit your question here:


Once a week, we'll go through submitted questions and post answers on the cam chat board, so check back for answers! We'll also post them here so we can all learn together about these amazing birds!

 

Owl Characteristics

Question: How do they turn their heads all the way around? How are they able to move their necks anywhere they want?


Answer:

Owls are able to move their heads about 270 degrees- which is almost all the way around, but not quite- more like 3/4ths. They can do this because they have extra neck bones and strong neck muscles. They also have special circulatory adaptations so they don’t cut off blood flow when they turn their head so far. They have 14 neck bones, compared to the 7 in humans.

Being able to turn their heads so far lets them see behind them without moving their torso or the rest of their body, which helps reduce the amount of sound they make—which helps them stay unnoticed and hidden from any potential prey or from any birds that might want to mob them.



Diet and Feeding

Question: What do they eat?


Answer:

Great Horned Owls eat all sorts of things, including (but not limited to): small mammals (like voles, mice, and squirrels), larger mammals, like rabbits or skunks, birds like songbirds, gulls, herons, ducks, or pheasants, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects. They do seem to eat more mammals than anything else, followed by birds. It varies based on what prey is around, and that they can catch.


Question: How do Great Horned Owls not choke when swallowing large prey?


Answer:

The trachea is separate from the esophagus, so the food goes down the esophagus into the proventriculus, where digestion starts. The esophagus can expand quite a bit, and muscle contractions force the prey down. The trachea is a small opening behind the tongue where the owl breathes. It is surrounded by the glottis, which is the entrance to the trachea. The glottis reflexively closes when touched, which prevents food from going into the lungs. The esophagus is much larger than the small tracheal opening. As well, owls can breathe through their nares (nostrils on their bills). For more information:


Great Horned Owl Behavior

Question: I had heard that owls need to be in a dark place during the day to sleep. If so, why is their nest so open and out in the daylight?


Answer:

Since Great Horned Owls don't build their own nests, they're limited to where old magpie or hawk nests are located-- hence, this more open location. They do prefer that their nests have good access, so they can easily fly in and out and are able to see any potential predators that might try to climb up into the nest.


Not all owls are strictly nocturnal- there are a few species which are crepuscular, or most active at dawn and dusk. Great Horned Owls do tend to be more nocturnal. However, since the owls have chicks, they're going to be active more often during daylight hours as they have all those hungry mouths to feed.


Even when they don't have chicks (like during the winter, and later in the fall when the chicks are full grown) when they roost during the day they probably aren't in complete darkness. Though I'm sure they'd love to have a nice dark barn or outbuilding to roost in during the day, most will be tucked up against a tree, camouflaged against the trunk or hidden in the branches. Even if they are roosting tucked up in a dense pine tree, it won't be completely dark during the day, though it certainly will be shaded.



Question: Why are the owls awake? Shouldn’t they be sleeping during the daytime?


Answer:

Great Horned Owls are crepuscular, which means that they are most active at dawn and dusk, and also nocturnal, which means they are awake and active at night. However, this depends on both their food supply and the weather. If it’s overcast and cold, they may hunt earlier in the day. As well, when the adults have fast-growing hungry chicks to feed (like they do here), they will hunt throughout the day to feed their demanding chicks.



Question: What do the Great Horned Owls do all day? Why don’t they seem to be moving a lot?


Answer:

Because Great Horned Owls are crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk), and also nocturnal (active at night), during the day they sleep—what we call ‘roosting.’ The Great Horned Owls on the cam usually roost in trees or in the thick brush. The male of this pair often roosts directly under the nest, in the same tree.



Question: Where is the male owl?


Answer:

Mr. Hootie (as the male owl has been affectionately named by cam viewers) is usually roosting (which means perched, and sleeping) directly below the nest. The cam is zoomed in so we can see the female (her name is Wonky) and their chicks in the nest, so we can’t always see him on the cam. But, if you listen carefully, you can often hear him hooting in the distance as he chats with Wonky and their chicks! When he’s not roosting near the nest, he’s off hunting for his hungry growing chicks.



Great Horned Owls- ORI's neighbors

Question: Could the Great Horned Owl pair by the ORI office who have been nesting there for a while (called Hunter and Tabitha) be offspring of Hootie and Wonky (the pair currently on the live cam)? If yes, would this make Hooty and Wonky more tolerable towards them?


Answer:

This is all speculation since we haven’t banded or closely watched these owls, but this is unlikely. The juvenile owls usually disperse (or move out of the area) by winter and will often go many miles away. After they leave their natal ground (the area where they were born) they will wander (or “float”) for a few years until they find a mate and an open territory. If there was an open territory close to where they were born they might take it. Males usually take a few years to find a mate and an open territory of their own.


Question: Would Hunter and Tabitha ever nest in Wonky and Mr. Hootie’s nesting areas, and vice-versa? Do the two Great Horned Owl families ever share hunting areas?


Answer:

Great Horned Owls are VERY territorial, so they would never nest in an adjacent pair’s territory. This is why there is so much hooting in the winter, as the pairs are letting everyone in the area know where their territory is an that it is very much occupied.


Question: Is it possible for the juveniles from each Great Horned Owl family to hang out in the other family’s territory? Could one of Hunter and Tabitha’s juveniles hang out on the Charlo Osprey perch (which is in Wonky and Mr. Hootie’s territory)?


Answer:

It is possible that one of Hunter and Tabitha’s young could try to hang out on the perch, but it would probably be chased off very quickly. Great Horned Owls are very territorial, and will even chase off their own juveniles from previous years by the winter.



Great Horned Owl Vocalizations

Questions:

Do male Great Horned Owls hoot 4 to 6 times (with 5 being most common), and females 7 to 11 times (with 7 being most common)?


Are there regional or generational differences in the number of hoots males and females give? Does what they hear when they’re young make a difference in what they sound like as adults?


Answer:

Number of hoots

According to Birds of the World, the number of hoots (or syllables) varies in a population and among individuals. However, each male Great Horned Owl has a unique sound and pattern, a ‘vocal fingerprint,’ and you can use spectrograms (also called sonograms, which are visual representations of sounds) to identify an individual. [for more information about using spectrograms to ID birds, check out Nathan Pieplow’s Earbirding website].


Male and female Great Horned Owls will duet, or hoot together in a call-and-response type way, or sometimes slightly overlapping each other, as a way to let the neighborhood know that this is their territory (called ‘territorial advertisement’ in research papers). These duets can be anywhere from 10 to 60 minutes long. The female’s part usually goes like this: 7 hoots (sometimes 6), that last about 3 seconds total. The male’s part is usually a 5 hoot sequence, also lasting about 3 seconds. Duetting usually starts about one to two months before the first egg is laid.

Young males (juveniles, or birds that hatched that year) will mimic adult hoots during their first winter, but female Great Horned Owls don’t seem to do the same- they’ll just start giving full female hoots during their first spring.