Just as you’re drifting off to sleep and snuggled up tight on a cold January night, you hear “Who’s awake? Me, too.” It’s the call of a great horned owl, a nocturnal bird of prey that is native to DuPage County.
Perhaps if you’re fortunate, you may even hear its mate return the call! This duet is a communication between a monogamous pair, and the hooting not only strengthens their bond but also wards off other owls who may wish to claim the territory. The male’s call is a lower, deeper voice, and the female’s a higher pitch. Often the two will hoot over one another and the calls go on for lengthy hours. If you haven't heard a duet, listen in with this clip captured near Danada Forest Preserve.
While many migratory birds leave the area in fall and winter, owls become more prevalent in the DuPage forest preserves during this time. DuPage County is home to seven owl species in the winter: screech, great horned, long-eared, barred, short-eared, northern saw-whet, barn and sometimes snowy owls.
While most owls are nocturnal, snowy owls hunt during the day, so you're more likely to see them in the daytime. Most owls are masters of camouflage and blend in well with tree bark, so it's challenging to spot them.
Owls are referred to as “tigers of the skies” because their bodies are perfectly suited to make them one of the most successful predators of the night skies.
Vision: Owls have very large eyes that are fixed in place, making them able to turn their heads 270 degrees. If humans had the same eye-to-=skull ratio as owls, our eyes would be the size of oranges. Owls also have excellent night vision because they have mostly rod cells in their eyes (humans have mostly cone cells).
Hearing: They have very acute hearing because their ears are located on the sides of their face. Many owls have asymmetrical placement of ears on their faces. Paired with a facial disk of feathers that act like a satellite, owls are able to funnel and triangulate sound very accurately.
Beak: Their beaks are sharply pointed and angled downward so they don't get in the way of sound waves for hearing, but sharp like scissors for ripping up large prey (often referred to as a fork and knife).
Feathers: Owl feathers are fringed (comb-like), which breaks up air and allows for silent flight so they can sneak up on prey.
Talons: Owl talons are very sharp and strong. The talons of great horned owls are strong enough to prey on skunks, and are the skunk's only natural predator.
Owls breed in the winter, so in fall they are beginning the courtship. If you listen at night, you might be able to hear their courtship calls, especially the great horned owl. Owls, which are monogamous, have their babies in January. Owls do not make their own nests, but instead take over other nests, such as hawk nests. Snowy owls, which are transient, are the only owls that don't breed in the area during the winter.
Don't miss the opportunity to discover more about native owls and their habits and adaptations at the Forest Preserve District's Willowbrook Wildlife Center.
Eastern screech owl
Great horned owl