November 2006 Anyone who walks at dawn or dusk near the Deem Hills will sooner or later be rewarded with the soft, low hoot of a great horned owl. Whether the resonating call of the owl evokes feelings of wild beauty, or primeval dread, it is always a reminder of something greater than the human world to anyone who pauses to listen. If you’re lucky, you may spot the striking silhouette of an owl perched on a saguaro, or see one glide overhead on silent wings.
The great-horned owl is the most common and widespread of North American owls, and a year-round resident wherever they live. They are also the most adaptable, being able to thrive in both wilderness and urban settings, from the coldest northern forests and mountains to the hottest southwest deserts. Standing nearly two feet tall with a wingspan of almost four feet wide, the great horned owl is capable of taking prey ranging from jackrabbits to mice, along with snakes, lizards, frogs, fish and other birds. Owing to their lack of a sense of smell, they are also the commonest predator of skunks. On occasion they will also take an unwary cat or small dog.
Among the six species of owl found in the Sonoran Desert (barn, western screech, pygmy, elf, and burrowing owls are the others), the hoot of the great-horned owl, along with its impressive size, make them easy to identify. Some call them the “5-hooter,” since their most common call has five parts, with the second and third hoot more rapid than the rest. With a little imagination, you can hear them say “Who’s awake? Me too.” The female hoots are shorter and higher than the males.
As with all birds of prey, the female is slightly larger than the male, although it is the male who hoots the most, as he stakes out the one-third to two square mile territory for the pair during much of the year. In winter months, males and females hoot to one another as they engage in courtship and breeding. Nest sites are usually established in cliffs, tree hollows, or on top of old hawk nests. Explorers in the Deem Hills will recognize a few cliff nest sites by the litter of small animal bones and bits of fur on the ground below where young owls have coughed up pellets. Between one and four new hooters fledge and disperse from the nest sites by late March or April. Listen for a hooter near you!
Since May 2005, I have written a natural history column for a neighborhood newsletter published by Jennifer Moore called "Our Big Backyard: Natural History of the Deem Hills," and since 2010, "A Suburban Naturalist."All of these columns are reproduced here. Deem Hills is a City of Phoenix Desert Preserve located just north of Happy Valley Road in north central Phoenix, and just west of I-17. The Preserve and adjacent hills comprise over 900 acres of open space with several miles of hiking trails. For more perspectives from the Deem Hills and suburban Phoenix, also check out my companion blog, Kat Tracks.
As a naturalist with a special interest in botany and plant ecology, some of my greatest passions are to explore, photograph and write about native plants. If I can spark an awareness or interest in natural history in others along the way, that is my greatest reward.