A Wondrous Pandemonium
By Shane Morrison
Broadcast 5.25 & 5.28.2022

A Great Horned Owlet in flight. Photo © Shane Morrison.

 

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Near my house in the meadow, there stands a great tree, a very old ponderosa pine much larger than those in the surrounding old-growth forest. I often visit to watch the animals as they forage and play – various birds, red foxes, cottontail rabbits, meadow voles, and squirrels.

Early in April, I had just spied a fox squirrel eating pine seeds from a ground cache when I felt a shadow gliding overhead on silent wings. I looked up yet saw nothing. When I looked back, there was an indistinct gray form, an apparition, in the shadows where the squirrel had been. The apparition turned its head toward me and peered with two large golden eyes. Tufted horns now held erect confirmed it was a Great Horned Owl. It mantled, covering its prey with wings spread low to the sides. Raising those great wings, the owl lifted from the ground, the squirrel dangling, grasped in one taloned foot.

For many years a pair of Great Horned Owls has lived in this old-growth forest. They often roost in the great ponderosa or adjacent trees, as evidenced by the large white droppings and occasional owl pellets found at the base of the trees. Hunting during the day is unusual, however. Generally, Great Horned Owls hunt at night, often at dawn and dusk, and sleep during the day. This owl was likely hunting to feed hungry hatchlings, so perhaps there was a nest nearby. The male typically provides food for its mate and their hatchlings during the first couple of months. As altricial birds—meaning the young are quite helpless when they hatch—the hatchlings rely on their parents to feed, protect, and keep them warm until they grow their flight feathers, a process called fledging.

I never found the nest, but one day I found three owlets perched on an old woodpile. They apparently had already fledged. Once fledged the owlets begin to branch, or climb out of the nest, at about six weeks of age. These branchlings soon attempt to fly and often find themselves on the ground where they are vulnerable to bobcats, coyotes, and hawks.

Once they leave the nest, the owlets roost with their parents in trees. They beg for food as long as possible. While the owlets have the instincts to hunt, the parents must still feed them, taking food to each one until they learn to hunt for themselves. Eventually, the owlets will begin to catch prey on their own.

Several days passed after I found the fledglings on the woodpile. Then early one morning, I spotted an owlet on a pine branch. I counted as I approached – one, two, three…four. I was astonished! Four fledglings are quite rare. While a clutch may have two to four eggs, typically only one to three owlets survive to fledge due to asynchronous hatching. Since the eggs are usually fertilized and laid at different times, the young hatch over the course of a week or so. Rivalry over food is intense, and the older hatchlings often injure and steal food from their younger, weaker siblings, who rarely survive unless food is abundant.

The four Great Horned Owlets! Photo © Shane Morrison.

The next week was a spectacle. The trees were alive, filled with a cacophony of low chittering, squawks, and hoots as the owls kept in contact. And then for brief moments the trees would erupt with a wondrous pandemonium as owls flew helter-skelter overhead. But eventually, by the end of summer, one by one the owlets began to leave, seeking unknown regions of the forest, each on their own journey; each would perhaps someday find a mate of its own.

 

I returned to the woods one autumn day to find an owl asleep in the great pine, and for a moment I remembered my marvelous experience with the owls. Yet this day there was a deep calm about the forest, and the great tree stood in silent witness, undisturbed, the owl a quiet grey shadow in its branches.

 


Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.

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