Early birds

Great Horned Owls are among the earliest nesting birds in North America, and the pair nesting at a local park may one of the earliest in MN.  This was the scene when I visited their nest box (provided by the park).

Great Horned Owls nestlings

They are just tall enough to look over the edge of the box. They kind of resemble Ewoks from the Star Wars movie.

Two chicks, one slightly older and larger than the other (on the left) judging from the replacement of white downy fuzz on the face with browner contour feathers, peeped over the edge of their box at the line-up of us photographers 50 yards away.

This younger of the two owlets has a distinctly white face and forehead, but is already starting to develop ear tufts, so it is probably at least 3 weeks old.

This younger of the two owlets has a distinctly white face and forehead, but is already starting to develop ear tufts.

Great Horned Owl nestling -- 3-4 weeks old

Its older sibling is showing more of the gray facial feathers and replacement of the white natal downy feathers.   Judging from their development and ability to stand up and look around, I would guess they are at least 3 weeks old, probably hatching in early to mid February.

Typically, Great Horned Owlets remain in their nest about 7 weeks, when they can move about the branches of their nest tree — and are called “branchlings”. Although their body contour feathers are well developed, they retain some of the downy insulation, so they still appear fuzzy.  It will take another couple of weeks before their flight feathers are fully grown and they can fly (about 9-10 weeks of age).

owlet and mother-2014

Mama Owl and one of her offspring (on the upper right side of the photo) perched quite a distance from their nest tree last year on April 1 (2014).  Assuming this photo was taken soon after fledging, that means these owlets probably hatched in early to mid February as well.


The younger sibling opted to stay at the nest (which is mostly destroyed) hoping to still be fed.  You can see there wasn’t much room for two young owlets here, so the park people made them a new nest box.

Assuming the owlets in the nest box this year are 3-4 weeks old, they probably hatched in February during one of our extreme cold spells. But cold temperatures don’t seem to bother Great Horned Owls as long as they can find enough food — and this pair of adults is obviously good at that.  Females have successfully incubated their eggs at temperatures as low as -30 F, but the chicks must be continually brooded for their first couple of weeks of life at temperatures like that, so the male must feed both the chicks and the female!


Here he is, in late January, sitting in his favorite tree near the nest, and resting up before the big chore of raising those ravenous offspring.

11 thoughts on “Early birds

  1. Hi Sue,  Great pix! Thank you for sharing.  Wasn’t aware that anyone had devised a nesting box for Great Horned Owls. I am an Assistant Scoutmaster for a Boy Scout Troop in New Brighton and it might be a good project for a boy, or a group of boys, to undertake building and mounting some.  Do you know where I can get info on the design, and how I might go about determining where around the metro we might be able / allowed to put boxes up?  *********************** Ed Davies

    • Thanks for your comment, Ed. I’ve replied with more details to your email address. In short, I think there are too many Great Horned Owls around already, but you could build boxes for a birds whose populations are declining, like Kestrels. Great idea for a scout project!

    • Thanks, I hope to post a few more of these little owls as they develop. Hopefully I’ll get back there before they move off into the forest.

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