Don’t mess with a Great Horned Owl named Bonnie

On a farm near Newton, Kansas, there is a tree. It has a Bald Eagle’s nest that, until a little over a week ago, belonged to a mated pair, Willie and Marie. It was ‘borrowed’ by a pair of Great Horned Owls, sometimes called Hoot Owls, that have been aptly named Bonnie and Clyde after the infamous bank robbers.

On 26 January 2021, the owls came to check out what appeared to be an unoccupied nest. This reminds me of when Daisy the Duck and her mate came to check on the WBSE nest in mid-December. Both have a look over the property to see if it is good for eggs and protection.

The owls decided that this would be the perfect spot to raise their family.

The next day the Bald Eagles come to check on their nest. Did they know that the owls had been there?

Something gave Willie and Marie concern. Normally they roost with a large group of eagles but that night, they chose to sleep on their nest.

In the middle of the night, a Great Horned Owl attacks them knocking one of the Bald Eagles from the nest. That was a game changer.

It wasn’t long til Bonnie, the GHOW, had laid her first egg right in the centre of the Bald Eagle’s nest.

In the image above, Bonnie, the owl, is on the nest. She has laid at least one egg. The norm is from one to five eggs. Great Horned Owls are absolutely fierce opponents as you can see from the confrontation that is taking place. In fact, Bonnie will defend her nest without hesitation. While most people will immediately think that owls are ‘cute’ and often ‘cuddly’ or ‘wise’ as in children’s story books, it is good to keep in mind that these are large raptors. They can easily kill, and do, all manner of falcons, Ospreys, as well as other owls. They are known to kill large prey by breaking their spines.

As with all other raptors, the female is the largest. Bonnie weighs, on average, 2 kg or 4.4 lbs. It is entirely possible that Bonnie’s mate, Clyde, weighs half what she does. Male GHOWs generally weight between 1 – 1.5 kilos or 2.2 – 3.3 lbs. Their wing span is about the same, measuring 1.2 metres or almost four feet. In comparison, a Bald Eagle has a wingspan of 1.8 – 2.3 metres or 5 ft 11 in – 7 ft 7 in. The average weight of an adult bald eagle is 6.35 kilograms or 14 lbs. In other words, the Bald Eagle is a lot larger than the Great Horned Owl. In the picture, it is hard to tell which of the raptors is, indeed, the largest. Had there been a fight between the two, both might have been injured. Thankfully, nothing has happened to date.

GHOWs have their young earlier than most other raptors. Generally, they lay their eggs and begin raising their young when the snow is on the ground. The Red Tail Hawks, on the other hand, do not normally lay their eggs until the third week in March, right about the beginning of spring. However, that does not seem to be the case with Bald Eagles. For example, the nest in Fort Myers Florida has eaglets that are twenty-six days old while E24 over at NE Florida, is nine days old. The Love Trio near Fulton, Illinois have laid their first egg on Valentine’s Day while other nests are ahead of them. It is unclear to me when this young mated Bald Eagle couple would have begun laying eggs on this nest. It seems to vary by geographical region and I presume normal climatic conditions. We know that this year in the US it is anything but normal now with the Polar Vortex taking over and causing severe winter storms.

I am left wondering about the Bald Eagles, Willie and Marie. What will they do for a nest? This GHOW has at least 21 more days til hatch. Those beautiful little owls aren’t going to immediately jump out of that nest and begin catching mice! No, they will branch (hop up to a close branch) when they are about six weeks old and will fledge taking short flights at seven weeks. That is, by my crude calculations, around the end of April or the beginning of May. Ah, those Bald Eagles aren’t going to wait that long to lay their eggs.

GHO chicks at 3 weeks of age. USFWS image.

These little fluffy owls are seriously cute with their big eyes. Not sure I would want to cuddle one thought unless it was a stuffy.

Adult GHOW and Juvenile, approximately 6 weeks old. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In Canada, the GHOW is our second largest owl. The Snowy Owl is bigger.

There are GHOWs that live in a tree on a nearby golf course. On occasion, the owls come near to where I live. Indeed, last summer there was a huge commotion in the large trees in front of my house. Neighbours ran out to see what was going on. Everyone thought that the cute owl – it was a Great Horned – was being attacked by the crows. In fact, the owl had come to raid the crow’s nest. The crows had called in family and friends to help them move the owl along.

As I watched, the cheering section for the owl grew in size. Is it because owls are ‘wise’ or ‘cute and fluffy’ and Crows are black with sharp pointed beaks? I wondered about the impact of children’s literature and movies on the reactions of the onlookers to the avian behaviour. All manner of misconceptions have come to us through writers. One that really bothers me often is ‘fish do not feel pain’. I say that because many people get upset if, for example, White-Bellied Sea Eagles eat a Silver Gull because it has feathers but they don’t care at all if it brings a live fish onto the nest for the eaglets. What I have learned, most explicitly, is that birds are extremely intelligent. Their senses are more highly developed than humans and they share the same emotions that we have including mourning, joy, love, and intimidation.

In the course of six weeks, I have witnessed a Pacific Black Duck (our sweet little Daisy) make her nest in an unusual place, in a forest in the centre of a White-Bellied Sea Eagle nest. We will never know ‘why’ Daisy risked laying her eggs there and trying to incubate them to hatch but something motivated her to get her nest off the ground. Owls are often opportunistic. Their nests are not normally constructed year after year, twig after twig, like the eagles, for example. Did the owls lose their nest? Was their nest destroyed? Was the nest of the Bald Eagle just convenient for Bonnie and Clyde? This evening a Barred Owl attached Bonnie around 11:05pm. Bonnie was actually rolling her eggs when the owl came up from behind. You can see Bonnie trying to get her footing and the face of the attacker on the right. It is possible that owl has a nest close by or maybe it has its eyes on this prime piece of real estate. However, it would be a whole lot better if the smaller owl was ‘wise’ and didn’t try that move again. Bonnie just might be having a much bigger dinner than a mouse!

Barred Owl knocks Bonnie off balance while she turns her eggs.

That was not the drama that I was expecting. Sometimes these bird nests are better than anything being shown on the streaming stations on your telly! Happily no one was injured. Wonder what will happen tomorrow?

JUST A NOTE: IN THE WEE HOURS OF THE MORNING OF THE 18TH OF FEBRUARY WHEN IT WAS STILL DARK, AN OWL KNOCKED THE BALD EAGLE M15 OFF OF THE ATTIC WHERE IT WAS SLEEPING (IN A TREE ON THE PRITCHETT FARM) AND INTO THE NEST WITH HARRIET AND E17 AND E18. BONNIE IS A LARGE OWL SITTING ON THIS NEST IN KANSAS AND SHE IS A FORMIDABLE OPPONENT.

Thank you for joining me today. I am so glad that you stopped in. Stay safe and take care.

Thank you to Derek the Farmer for his streaming cam, the USFWS, and Wikimedia Commons.

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