Got a great horned owl as a neighbour? Now that’s really a hoot!

You can recognize this powerful owl by his call. ‘Ho-ho-hoo-hoo-hoo.’  And no, he isn’t Santa Claus.

When people think of owls they usually think of magic and wizards and movies, especially the Harry Potter series. Movies and television often project owls to be evil and frightening creatures that dwell in forests. People are often surprised to see owls within the city but it’s not uncommon. Those who live in older, mature areas of the city and especially near rivers and creeks should certainly know that owls live among them.

In most cases, owls are thought of as being wise and the bearers of great knowledge but many native American tribes see it differently. Ojibwa people see owls as a symbol of evil and death but also as a symbol of high status among their spiritual leaders. Pawnees viewed owls as a strong symbol of protection and the Sioux thought of the owl as possessing powers not found in other animals and therefore wearing their feathers as protection against negative forces. In Japan, too, owls have meaning: homes are adorned with owl figurines to ward off famine and epidemics.

The great horned owl eats rodents and even skunks! (photo from http://www.gov.mb.ca/watchablewildlife)

A five-foot wingspan
Myths and stories apart, there is no denying owls are beautiful and amazing birds. There are many species of owls throughout Manitoba but the most commonly seen  in Winnipeg include eastern screech owls, northern saw-whet owls and mightiest of all, the great horned owl.

The great horned owl is one of the most powerful in the world of owls. These amazing predators are very common and nest throughout the city and even in some people’s back yards! They are described as 18 to 27 inches in length with a wingspan of 40 to 60 inches. Females are larger than males and can weigh anywhere from three to 5.5 pounds.

The “horns” on their heads are not horns or ears but tufts of feathers. The birds are mostly brown with a white throat, but their bright yellow eyes are the most captivating part of their appearance.

Great horned owls are fierce hunters and their diet is quite varied. They eat small rodents like mice and voles, or squirrels and gophers, but enjoy animals as large as skunks, one of their favoured meals! At Winnipeg’s Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre, it is common to receive injured great horned owls, usually from vehicle collisions, and it is comical how often the owls are very stinky from their last meal. They even eat other birds, including predators like hawks.

The call of the great horned owl is one of the most recognized of all owl calls, a series of hoots in four or five syllables, ho-ho-hoo-hoo-hoo.

Eastern Screech owl (Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Eastern screech owls are much smaller birds and because of their size many mistake them for young owls. They are only six to 10 inches high and weigh a mere four to 8 1/2 ounces. Their wingspan is 18 to 24 inches. They are grey or red with the red actually being a rusty shade. Screech owls nest in natural cavities of trees, old woodpecker cavities and even in birdhouses. People who put up wood duck houses are often surprised when this little owl claims the house.

Northern saw-whet owls are not seen very often since they are so tiny – at 6½ to 8½ inches tall. Their wingspan is 17 to 22 inches and they weigh up to 5¼ ounces. Their name comes from the sound they make, which has been described as a saw being sharpened on a whetstone. That repeating whistle sound is most often heard in spring when mating begins.

Mom moves on

Northern saw-whet owl (Photo courtesy of owl-pictures.com)

Saw-whet owls also use tree cavities for nesting, where the female will lay five or six eggs. The father hunts to feed his mate while she incubates the eggs. Once the chicks have hatched and developed feathers, the female will leave the father to continue caring for the young while she pursues another male to begin another nest.

Next time you walk through any of the city’s parks or canoe along the river look closely in the trees. You never know “hoo” might be watching.

Sherrie Versluis owns The  Preferred Perch Wild Birds and Specialty Gift Store in St. Vital.

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