Published May 11, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Owl family draws visitors to Lions Park.”
By Barb Gorges
There’s been quite the parade of admirers trekking to Lions Park to see the pair of owls that nested there this spring, and their three owlets.
By mid-April, they became widely known within the Cheyenne birding community and among regulars at the park. Generally speaking, they can be found in the trees north of Sloans Lake and the Cheyenne-Kiwanis Community House.
I suspect someone aiming a long-lens camera at the top of a tree will have passersby surreptitiously looking in the same direction to figure out what they are shooting. Or, being Cheyenne-friendly, they’ll simply ask. Then they, too, become converted to the owl-watching cult.
The day I went to see them, my husband Mark and I could only find one adult and one young, but I’d heard that one of the owlets had been seen on the ground, toddling, like a Furby toy, to another tree—and climbing it. It takes a few weeks before owlets are strong enough to fly much.
The owlets will stay with their parents for the summer, so we hope everyone keeps their dogs leashed while in the park. The neighborhood red foxes present enough of a challenge.
When it comes to breeding, great horned owls get an early start in the year. The male can be heard hooting in February to establish its territory. Chances are, his mate from last year is still around. Other than courtship, they don’t roost close to each other during the year. They don’t build a nest. Instead, they use a tree cavity or an available nest in a tree made by a hawk, crow, heron or squirrel.
The female is the one who incubates the (typically) two eggs. She’ll lay more if food—prey animals—is very abundant. For more than 30 days between February and March, she can successfully incubate through winter conditions, even -27 degrees (-33C).
The male keeps her fed. Food found in our park could include rabbits, mice, waterfowl and other birds. This was not a good winter to find ducks, since Sloans Lake, in the park, stayed completely frozen until mid-March.
Research shows owls occasionally take squirrels, and with the overabundance available in the park, that would be my guess as to what they are eating. If anyone finds owl pellets—the compacted balls of bones that are regurgitate by the owls —we could find out for sure.
At 6 weeks old, and nearly equal to their 22-inch-tall parents, young owls climb out of the nest and take a stroll onto nearby branches. Over the next four weeks they practice flying short distances and may be found roosting on the ground.
The siblings hang out together, but the parents, except for occasionally dropping off food, prefer to roost away from the kids, to avoid hearing their incessant begging that starts up whenever the parents come near.
The owlets start out catching insects and eventually learn to catch mammals and birds by the perch and pounce method. By October, they are ready to fend for themselves.
Typically, young owls are 2 years old before they breed. But it really depends on the amount of prey available. If pickings are slim, many can’t find a big enough territory to support a family because there are probably more dominant owls in the area chasing them off. The researchers call the unpaired birds “floaters.”
Great horned owls don’t migrate seasonally. But the young disperse to find new territory, looking for some place that has an abundance of prey. Studies cited in Birds of North America Online show they moved a mean distance of 46 miles (75 km). Otherwise, they would have a long wait before they could take the place of their parents’ generation—this species has been documented to live more than 20 years. So, for the young, it’s about waiting for those years when rabbit reproduction is up.
Whether the current pair nests in the park again next winter depends on the nest they used still being in good shape—or if a replacement is found. But more importantly, is there still enough food?
Great horned owls across North America, the only continent where they are found, work out answers to these questions every year.
It seems, despite people feeding the park squirrels (even though they shouldn’t and the over-abundant population is chewing up and damaging park trees), the owls are here to bring balance. It’s another step in making a manmade landscape more natural.