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VIRTUAL HIGHLAND LAKES: Great horned owl

The great horned owl is named for its two feather tufts, like horns, on top of its head.

The great horned owl is a mid-winter bird common in the Highland Lakes. In fact, a family of great horned owls nests each winter in Haley-Nelson Park in Burnet, a favorite location for birdwatchers.

They are about the size of a large duck, weighing 32-88 ounces. Crowning their thick bodies are two prominent, feathered tufts — the “horns” after which they are so aptly named.

The devilish raptors vary in color, depending on the region of the country they call home. In the Southwest, they tend to be pale gray. In Canada, they are almost white. In the Pacific Northwest, they are a dark, sooty color.

Their feathers are masterfully designed for silent flight through the night in search of prey. They are extremely soft and insulate the birds from the cold. Facial disc feathers direct soundwaves to their ears for exceptional hearing.

When it comes to sound, males and females differ in their calls and pitches, but the basic call of the great horned owl is two short hoos followed by three long ones: hoo, hoo, hooooo, hooooo, hoooo.

Calling Central Texas home along with great horned owls are barn owls, flammulated owls, western and eastern screech owls, ferruginous pygmy owls, elf owls, burrowing owls, barred owls, long-eared owls, and short-eared owls. Who knew?

While owls are birds, the differences between them and other feathered flying creatures are as varied as their species. Unlike most birds, owls are carnivorous and hunt at night. They also have forward-facing yellow eyes and necks that turn 270 degrees.

They attack with sharp talons and a force that can kill on impact. Their claws are zygodactyl with an arrangement of two in the front and two in the back. One of the back toes can pivot forward, and, fully clenched, their talons require a force of 28 pounds to open. Not very birdlike at all, even when counting their fellow raptors.

What they do have in common is the desire for ample food, water, and shelter when nesting, most of which can be provided in your own backyard. Owl boxes attract a wide variety of owls. Great horned owls, however, are too big to be cavity nesters.

Owls need a supply of rodents and an abundance of trees to nest in. You also need to turn off your lights and turn down your music. They prefer dark and quiet.

For more on great horned and other owls, visit All About Birds or the Audubon websites. The Highland Lakes Birding and Wildflower Society is another great source for information about all of the birds common — and uncommon — in the Highland Lakes.

suzanne@thepicayune.com

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