As the winter solstice approaches and darkness creeps ever closer to the outer edge of afternoon, I find myself complaining like an 8-year-old, “It’s time to go in already?” And then a great horned owl hoots, and I am stopped dead in my tracks.

I listen patiently and, sure enough, a female owl hoots back, audibly higher in pitch.



Adult Great Horned Ow, photo by Len Blumin

Male owls hoot all year long, but it is only during these shortened days of fall and winter that we are invited to eavesdrop on the courtship of this most beloved, and sometimes feared, creature of the night.

With its ear-like tufts of feathers and staring yellow eyes, the great horned owl is the quintessential wise old owl of storybook and legend, cartoons and caricature, and greeting cards both scary (at Halloween) and congratulatory (at graduation).

That may be because the great horned owl is the most common owl in the Americas, ranging from the Arctic to South America. Or it may be because the owl seems equally at home in our neighborhoods and parks as it does in the wild. Or, it may be — as one legend has it — that we humans can feel the hoot of an owl even before we hear it.

Whether you feel it first or not, this is the perfect time of year to listen for the great horned owls. They are among the very first birds to breed in Northern California, with courtship starting as early as September and owlets in the nest by December or January. Although they are monogamous and typically mate for life, great horned owls only hang out together during breeding season.

The female is larger than the male, but he has a larger voice box, giving him a hoot with a deeper pitch. It is this difference in pitch that lets you know you are listening to love talk. In addition to calling back and forth, the owls’ courtship ritual includes rubbing bills, bowing to each other with dropped wings, and preening.

Just as it is difficult to drive past a field of cows without yelling “moo” out the car window, it can be difficult not to hoot back at an owl when you hear it. However, it is especially important to resist this urge now, during breeding season. As in any romance, three is a crowd.

Even well-meaning human interference in the owls’ courtship can disrupt breeding. And as tempting as it is to use that birding app on your smart phone, it is never appropriate to play recorded songs or calls to any species of bird in the wild. Reserve these recorded resources for your own enjoyment and education.

To hear the different types of great horned owl hoots, go to




Article courtesy of The Press Democrat:

December 10, 2015