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Pennsylvania owls nesting in snow

Article Date: 2008-01-10   Source:   Comments: 2

By H. Robert Myers

Barkeyville, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. - Breeding in the winter is the last thing on the minds of animals desperately searching for food or snug in hibernation ... except for our owls. In late December and early January, the hoots of some love-hungry owls can be heard piercing the frigid darkness.

The great horned owl even lays its eggs in February when our winters can be downright nasty. Nesting in the open, the female must sit on 2 or 3 eggs continuously and often can be seen covered with snow. If she were to leave, the eggs would surely freeze.

Fortunately, owls mate for life and the male great horned brings food to the sitting female, according to Robert Angelo of Skye's Spirit Wildlife Rehabilitation Center near Barkeyville. Approaching a great horned owl nest can be dangerous for animals and people alike as they aggressively defend nests with sharp talons and an aerial attack.

In February, the eggs hatch on different days, producing blind nestlings covered in white down. The early breeding and nesting give the young owls all summer to grow preparing for the next winter, said Angelo Sunday at the Jennings Environmental Center.

Our other resident owls nest about a month or two later than the great horned, but still in inhospitable weather. The barred, barn, and screech owls are permanent residents while great gray, saw whets and snowy owls occasionally visit.

When it comes to nests, owls are a bit lazy preferring to take over old hawk or crow nests. The smarter ones will seek a tree cavity, barn or wood duck box offering more shelter during cold weather egg incubation.

Screech owls and barred owls favor tree cavities for nesting while great horned owls aren't choosey and will use whatever is available for nesting.

Barn owls are the most unique and wisest nester. They like to get out of the snow seeking something with a roof. Church towers, barns and old buildings become the maternity wards for this owl. Surprisingly, barn owls don't use a nest structure but just lay eggs on a bare floor or beam. Sometimes they will use their droppings to fashion a make shift nest.

These owls have an internal form of birth control reducing the number of eggs laid or bypassing them altogether when food is scarce.

Strange world of owls

"Everything about the owl is strange and fascinating," said Eric Best of the Jennings Center. Not only are owls different from other birds, characteristics differ among owl species.

Skunks are one of the great horned owls favorite dishes and the raptor is most likely the only predator happy to attack the fragrant prey.

Considered Pennsylvania's most powerful and aggressive owl, great horned owls look large, but often weigh about four pounds. With a wing span stretching almost two feet, this is the largest of our resident owls.

Fearless, great horned owls sweep down on larger victims, including rabbits and domestic cats. Although their hearing is exceptional, the tufts on its head are just feathers and not ears.

Relying on hearing and super vision, great horned owls will pick up the slightest movement of a mouse or other potential food. Experienced mice will see the owl and remain motionless to avoid detection. The owl knows the mouse is below the tree on the forest floor, but can't locate it so employs a unique action.

Great horneds can expand their necks exposing light colored feathers creating a subtle flash. The exercise is enough to make the mouse panic into running or, at the very least, turn its head to see what's going on. The slight movement is all the owl needs to zero in on the doomed rodent.

Turkey hunters are familiar with the barred owl or least their "who cooks for you, who cooks for you all" call. Hunters use the call to locate gobblers that involuntarily sound off when they hear the owl hoots.

Barred owls are the most vocal of our owls and are common in our area. They get their name from the bars on its chest created by feather colors.

"The screech owl sounds like a woman who has had her thumb smashed with a hammer," Angelo said. The blood-curdling screech intimidates predators (including humans), giving the 7-ounce owl an interesting defense.

Only 10 inches tall, screech owls take smaller food such as grasshoppers, mice, frogs and moths. Like the great horned, this miniature owl also has feather tufts on its head.

Barn owls have a heart shaped white face and long legs. Unlike other owls, the barn owl emits whistles, snores and hisses instead of hoots.

Farmers welcome these good mousers into their barns where nestlings can eat their weight in rodents every night. In Butler County, a reintroduction program for barn owls raises the birds and releases them into the wild.

Take a walk on a moon light night in January near a wooded area and you'll probably be serenaded by romantic owls.

Disclaimer: This article has been reproduced from and placed here for comment. is not responsible for the accuracy of any information in this article, and does not necessarily agree with the author's opinions.

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On 2010-01-11, from southeast pa wrote: "great information. Thanks so much.

On 2013-04-29, from Brackney, PA wrote: "We have an owl, 8-10 inches tall in a hollowed out tree, egg shaped hole. We did't get the best look, brown shades of feathers.
Last year we found one that sounded like and injured animal, daughter found it in the dark.

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