Quick — when you think of a storybook owl, what do you picture in your head?
For many who grew up with old-school Disney-style cartoons, the answer is probably a big brown bird with huge yellow eyes and long, sharp eyebrows that jut off its face.
Turns out, there’s a real-life bird that almost perfectly matches that description, and it happens to be the species of owl most commonly found in the Yukon: the great horned owl.
“They are our most common owl, commonly seen, commonly encountered … so if you’re going to see owl, there’s a really great chance it’s going to be a great horned,” said Scott Cameron, a wildlife viewing technician with the Yukon government’s Wildlife Viewing Program.
Averaging a weight of about 1.5 kilograms (females tend to weigh more than males) and with a wingspan ranging from about a metre to a metre and a half, the great horned owl can be found in a variety of habitats across both North and South America, making its home in everything from deserts to marshes to forests to the subarctic tundra.
“It’s an interesting bird and an interesting owl because it’s so wide-spread … It’s quite impressive to think it’s so adaptable to all these different habitats and food sources,” Cameron said.
In the Yukon, the birds are mostly found in the forests of the southern half of the territory with populations petering out around Dawson City, although some have been spotted as far north as the Ogilvie Mountains. Yukon great horned owls are also partial to eating snowshoe hares, but, when those are scarce, will also feast on muskrats, small mammals, ducks and even other birds of prey (one great horned owl in particular was spotted eating another great horned owl, although it’s unclear how often cannibalism actually occurs).
Like most other owls, the great horned owl is nocturnal, meaning more often than not, it’s not so much seen as it is heard.
“Owls make all sorts of noises … So the great horned owl will make multiple sounds and they can have different reasons for doing that — it could be an alarm call, which would be more of a screeching sound that would signal there might be a predator in the area or to signal something’s too close to its nest … Female great horned (owls) are known to defend their nest sites aggressively,” Cameron said.
“There’s all those sorts of noise, but the classic song that you’d hear in the movies and hopefully in the forests here would be a very soft, gentle ‘hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo,’ very low-pitched, very bass-y.”
Each great horned owl hoots at a different pitch, Cameron continued, meaning it’s easy to tell different birds apart. And, unlike most birds, males and females will actually sing to each other, hooting back and forth throughout the night, especially during the late-winter mating season.
“Usually we think of birds as the male doing most of the singing, so the big, brightly-feathered male would conspicuously sit on a perch and sing his heart out to attract a female, and that’s a stereotype but it’s true. And usually the female would respond but wouldn’t be as vocal,” he said.
“(Great horned owl) mating pairs, or the potentially mating pairs of a male and a female will often sing to each other with those low, melodic hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoos … You can hear one and then the other going back and forth, and they actually call it dueting in some of the literature, which is kind of romantic, and it’s pleasing to the ear compared to the screeching sounds that owls sometimes make.”
Once they find a partner, great horned owls are “apparently monogamous,” Cameron said, with pairs staying together for multiple years (although if one mate dies, the remaining owl will likely seek out another one). The female will usually lay one or two eggs around April and incubate them while the male hunts and brings food back to the nest, with the fledglings learning to fly over the summer and striking out on their own in the fall.
And if you are lucky enough to spot one, great horned owls are easily recognizable thanks to their namesake — the feathers sticking up on either side of their heads give the appearance of horns, breaking up their otherwise average silhouette.
“If you see a large-ish owl with those two feather tufts, you’re almost certainly looking at a great horned owl,” Cameron said.
“It looks like a storybook owl.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org