One of the most distinctive birds in the Tehachapi Mountains is a nighttime predator that is heard more often than seen: the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus).
These large owls get their name for feathered tufts on the top of their head. Although they are commonly referred to as "ear tufts," these actually have nothing to do with the owl's hearing — their ears are located on the side of head, behind their eyes, while their "horns" or feather tufts are on the top of their head.
A Great Horned Owl's tuft feathers instead are believed to serve two purposes: they aid in camouflage and communication. These owls typically roost in large trees during the day, and their feathered tufts help break up the rounded shape of their face and help them blend in with their bark-covered surroundings.
Conversely, ear tufts (which the bird can raise or lower at will) help Great Horned Owls find and recognize each other in woodlands silently, without alerting either potential prey or predators. Raising their "horns" can help pairs of owls, or those with fledged young, keep track of each other as they move through trees and mixed landscapes.
Great Horned Owls take a greater diversity of prey items than any other raptor in North America, everything from snakes and scorpions to rabbits, rodents, fish, insects, housecats and a variety of birds and mammals. With very little sense of smell, they will even prey upon skunks — Great Horns are almost the only predator that will.
To increase the odds that their young will be able to find enough prey to survive, Great Horned Owls nest earlier than any other bird in our area. This means that fledgling owls will be hunting at the same time that the offspring of many prey species will be venturing about, increasing the abundance of food for young owls.
So Great Horned Owls often begin pairing up in December, and their territorial and courting calls of "Hoo HOO! Hoo Hoo" ring through cold Tehachapi winter nights. They typically begin nesting in February.
Because they nest so early, Great Horns have first choice in nest selection, and they usually appropriate large stick nests built by red-tailed hawks, ravens and other birds the previous year. These are usually in sizeable trees, both deciduous trees like oaks as well as conifers.
Female Great-horned Owls lay up to four eggs, though more commonly two or three, and these are incubated for about a month before they hatch. Female owls may get snowed on as they sit on their nest, keeping their eggs warm even during wintry days and nights.
The little owlets are small and helpless upon hatching, and their parents feed them by bringing prey back to the nest and tearing it into small pieces to feed their young, which are covered with fuzzy white down.
My friend Toshimi Kristof discovered two Great Horned Owl nests in Bear Valley Springs this February, and Toshimi and her husband, Les, have kept an eye on them and were able to photograph the parents and young. I'm including some of her photos on this page. Once the eggs hatch, Great Horns don't spend too much time on the nest itself, but perch on nearby branches, keeping a watchful eye on their young.
Great Horned Owls have been nicknamed "Tiger Owls," both for their sometimes striped appearance as well their ferocity as hunters — they will take down prey that weighs more than they do. They are also devoted, protective parents that have been known to attack people who climbed a tree that contained their nest and young.
Great Horned Owls are found throughout the Tehachapi Mountains, anywhere that has prey and enough trees for them to perch in during their daytime rest period. They will sometimes hunt in more open areas, but prefer more wooded places. These large owls are year-round, familiar residents of our mountains.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to email@example.com.