Ah, January on Amelia Island! Chilly evenings of crisp air and starry nights. Perhaps one night when you’re sipping hot chocolate or walking your four-legged family member, you might hear, “hoo-HOO-hoo-hoo”. Then you hear it again. It’s the classic call of the beautiful Great Horned Owl (nicknamed the “Hoot Owl”).
These large raptors live and nest here on Amelia Island and our surrounding eco-system. Their range is widespread; you may see one anywhere from Florida to Alaska. In our area, January is their nesting season. Pairs of adult owls are hooting to call to each other as they select a nest site and raise owlets. And they will do this not only in secluded areas like Fort Clinch State Park, but near retail stores, with cars and people bustling below them, or even right in your neighborhood.
Owls do not build nests. Instead, they use the nests of other birds, squirrels, or cavities in trees. They line their nests with leaves, or even the soft down they pluck from their chest. You may remember the Great Horned Owls that nested in an osprey nest on the north end of the island. It was the perfect “time share!” After the owls fledge their owlets, the osprey use the nest for their nesting season. Last winter, a pair of Great Horned Owls actually nested in an osprey nest on a channel marker just south of us.
Great Horned Owls nest once a year. The male and female take turns incubating their eggs for approximately 32 days. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology tells us that “mated pairs are monogamous and defend their territories with vigorous hooting, especially in the winter before egg-laying and in the fall when their young leave the area.” Owlets fledge at about 9 weeks of age, but remain near their nest for weeks thereafter. Young owls are the same size as their parents when they leave the nest.
Slightly larger than a Red-Tailed Hawk, with a wing span of approximately 50 inches, they are Florida’s largest owl. They are well-known for the feathered tufts on the top of the head called plumicorns, which may look like horns or cat-shaped ears, but are not ears at all. They are feathers. Unlike Bald Eagles and Red-Shouldered Hawks, these owls have feathers on their legs and feet.
Great Horned Owls have beautiful grey-brown feathers with a reddish face, white throat, and large yellow eyes. Even their eyelids have beautiful mottled-colored feathers. Samantha Little of Audubon’s Center for Birds of Prey tells us that “unlike humans, owl eyes are fixed and do not move, but they can rotate their head 270 degrees left or right from a forward-facing position. Their ears are located on the side of the head and are covered by feathers. The feathers that surround their face form a sort of disc, which brings sounds into the ears like radar. Their hearing is so keen that they often hear prey before seeing it. They are approximately 21” tall and the female is always larger than her mate.”
One Great Horned Owl alone can eat hundreds of rodents a year, which is a good reason to have owls as neighbors. This fall, you might consider installing a nest box to attract a pair of owls to nest on your property. You can find plans to build your own nest box by going to www.nestwatch.org.
Keep your “eyes to the skies” above our Amelia Island ecosystem. Listen for the “hoo-HOO-hoo-hoo”. Perhaps you will be fortunate and see some of Amelia Island’s Great Horned owls!