While Connecticut as a whole is considered a rather “tame” state in terms of wildlife, one species, in particular, puts that argument on its head. The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is the apex predator of New England and is a bird that can be found throughout the United States.
This owl species is in the “true owl” family and is closely related to the Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo), one of the world’s largest owl species. Great horned owls are also sizable birds, growing up to 25 inches (excluding tail feathers), but like all owls, are rather light, only weighing in at a little more than three pounds.
Larry Fischer, one of the most experienced owl researchers and “banders” in Connecticut, has done a lot of work with the great horned owl. He is one of the few federally licensed bird banders in Connecticut, which means he is permitted to catch and tag hawks, owls, and even eagles for research and to help monitor the population.
Fischer notes that the great horned owl population is declining due to habitat loss because “they are more apt to dwell in fields and farmlands.” While most birds rely on thick forests for habitat, great horned owls need wide-open territory, such as meadows, fields, and open areas that can support their most sought-after prey items such as squirrels, woodchucks and rabbits.
The great horned owl has earned its reputation as a vicious predator by feeding on large prey such as raccoons, opossums, skunks, hawks, and even great blue heron. Surprisingly, though, according to Fischer, great horned owls also have been known to catch small prey like large insects, fish, and even small songbirds such as warblers. Regardless of the size of its prey, Fischer describes great horned owls as aggressive birds that have been know to attack and kill goshawks and even red-tailed hawks.
This time of year, young great horned owls from the last nesting season have left the nest and are almost completely grown up. These young owls have been known to stay in the same territory as their parents up until December, when they leave to go off to find their own mate and territory during the cold winter months.
Great horned owls are difficult to find this time of year, but not impossible. Try to find these secretive predators through trails and lands managed by the Aspetuck Land Trust, or explore trails throughout Connecticut at CT Woodlands. To learn more about Larry Fischer, read The New York Times article by Easton artist and author James Prosek.
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