Look up, or down, because branching owl season has arrived
While most birders are chomping at the bit for hummingbirds, orioles, and warblers to arrive, some birds already are feeding chicks. The Minnesota DNR’s Bald Eagle Cam shows three young eaglets that hatched, and some great-horned owls have young already leaving the nest and hanging out on the branches.
Great-horned owls are probably our earliest nesters in the northern United States, though a few bald eagles are starting their nesting season earlier these days if they find enough open water and roadkill. Great-horned owls, however, traditionally have started their nesting season in January, with a few records of attempted nesting in December.
It takes a great-horned about a month to incubate its eggs. So if they laid eggs in January, they very well could be feeding young in February. After the young hatch, the female keeps them warm for the first two weeks. After that they can mostly stay warm on their own so long as we don’t get too many sub-zero days.
Owls don’t build their own nests, but commandeer old hawk or squirrel nests. When I used to survey bald eagle nests, sometimes a great-horned owl would take over an eagle’s nest. Not all bald eagles will switch to a new nest when this happens. Some eagles unceremoniously kick the owls out (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0eaDz1noRg).
Since great-horneds don’t build their own nests and do very little renovations, their nests tend to blow apart during winter storms. When the young are about six weeks old, their feet are as big as they are going to get and incredibly strong. This is known as the “brancher stage” of a young great-horned owl’s life. If the nest falls apart, they can use those strong toes to grip the surrounding branches. If they get blown out of a tree, their feet are strong enough that they can climb into low bushes.
The adults keep track of them and will still feed them during this period. In some ways, this is the most dangerous time in a young owl’s life. People frequently find them like this, before they can fly and assume they are abandoned chicks that need help. Since adult owls are masters of camouflage, it can be easy to miss a hidden adult watching and hoping their owlet will be left alone. But well-meaning folks will take the owls home or try to get them to a wildlife rehabilitation center. When you find a fluffy, young owl alone, it’s generally best to leave them be.
Young great-horned owls can put up an impressive display when approached. They will puff out their feathers and extend their wings, puffing up to about three times their actual size. Meanwhile, they will hiss and clack their beaks to look even more intimidating to any approaching person or predator.
At about seven weeks, owlets will attempt short flights around the nest area. Even though they can fly, they will still stay in the area with their parents for the rest of the summer. It takes a few months to learn how to be one of the most audacious predators of the woods that can kill prey twice and three times their size.