Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
June, 2008
Regional Report

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A young great horned owl is called a jumper because it jumps from the nest before learning to fly.

Who Who Whooo's There?

Weeding under a viburnum, Angela was startled by something in the branches. She looked up to see a small, fluffy, gray-and-white great horned owl perched with eyes closed. For the next hour while we oohed, aahed, and took photos, the owl slowly turned its head toward us, opened one eye, then the other, before closing both and settling into what looked like a calm nap.

Bernie Morris, past president and field trip chairman for the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society, wasn't surprised. Late May into June is fledgling time for young great horned owls. "They call the young great horned owls 'jumpers,'" Morris said. "They jump from their nest and walk around a bit. A cat would be smart to stay away."

"The best thing to do is to leave them alone," he cautioned. "They're not helpless. They can really give you a terrible puncture wound with their talons."

Commonly Heard, Seldom Seen
Great horned owls and screech owls are common in urban and suburban areas, said Doug Wechsler, ornithologist at The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. "Great horned owls cover almost every sort of habitat in North America -- from tundra to forest to mountains and cities." That's because their diet is quite varied, mostly mammals like skunks, mice, small possums, rats, squirrels, little rabbits, and the occasional pigeon or other bird. Owls are important as predators for keeping these populations intact. The typical great horned lives eight, nine years, though some have survived two decades.

This youngster is one of two, said Lucy, the property owner. "They're both more fuzz than feathers. They were just sitting on my front stoop one evening when Charlie and I came back from our walk. We just stood there transfixed while they clicked at us." Clicking their bills could mean a call to their parents to feed them, or a signal to keep away. Experts agree that parents may attack if their fledgling is threatened.

"Both parents are probably around and will stay with the young at least until fall," said Wechsler, author of Great Horned Owls in the PowerKids press series, The Really Wild Life of Birds of Prey. "It takes the young awhile to learn how to hunt efficiently. Owls are born early when summer food is plentiful and they have time to learn how to catch it."

Adults feed fledglings whatever they can catch, said Morris. "They are slow, stealthy hunters, active at night. The great horned is the biggest owl. It roosts in trees and has no natural predators except for man. A favorite food is skunk. Another is chicken, he discovered when one owl raided his chicken coup.

Fledglings can fly at seven weeks when body feathers replace downy feathers, Wechsler said. A true bird enthusiast, he imitated the great horned's most common call: "Who, who, whooo ... who, who." Listen for the great horned owl's call at night, especially in late fall and winter.

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