January 15, 2009
Great Horned Owl family
Great Horned Owl family
It's 5:00 a.m. along the Scottsdale greenbelt.  It'll be at least an hour before dawn even thinks about cracking.  Not a creature is stirring except sleepless runners.  And the nightstalkers.  I hear one first before I locate its unmistakable "eared" silhouette teed up on a snag across the golf course fairway.  It is a great horned owl, the earliest nesting North American bird species, already now in December establishing territory and advertising for a mate with its deep, resonant five syllable hoot--dash, dot, dot, dash, dash.

Great horneds, with a wingspan up to four feet and weighing as much as five pounds, are the size of red-tailed hawks, but because of their secretive nature and mostly nocturnal habits, they are heard more often than seen.  They are the most ubiquitous North American owl and the most common, at home from Alaska's arctic treeline to Arizona's saguaro deserts.

This widespread distribution through diverse habitats is a consequence of the species' eclectic diet.  Great horned owls will eat anything.  Though large rodents comprise the bulk of the typical diet, prey ranges in size from insects to racoons, and this "hunting machine" is known to kill, dismember, and partially eat mammals and birds too large for it to carry off.  It has the strongest talon grip --370 pounds of pressure compared to a human's 90--and the largest talon spread of any North American owl.

Nesting begins early, in January or February, so that nestlings are growing and fledging in April and May in synchrony with the emergence of spring's first crop of young field mice and rabbits.  In the Phoenix area great horned owls prefer desert washes, golf courses, and open residential areas.  Nests are usually large, bulky stick platforms in tall trees or the crotch of large, armed saguaros, built, used, and then abandoned by hawks, but I have seen Valley nests in cliff grottoes and on cell phone towers.  Clutch size is usually two, but in years of regional rodent abundance it is larger and nesting commences earlier.

Right now, winter into spring when they are most vocal and often hunt and court at dawn and dusk, is the best time to try to observe these magnificent nighttime predators.  Walk your local wash or golf course or check out our mountain parks on the periphery of native desert areas.  My most memorable Valley great horned encounter came several springs ago in McDowell Mountain Park where I saw one hovering--"kiting"--at eye level over a road waiting for rodents attracted to the warmth of the paved surface.  Periodically it would slap its wings together, apparently trying to "herd" rodents from the shoulder to the blacktop for an easy meal.

Now it's 5:30 a.m., and as I make my way back up the greenbelt I hear the female answer, softer, farther away.  They are duetting.  It pays to advertise.