If you give a hoot about owls, now is the time to search for these rousing raptors.
"We do owl programs in winter because this is the time of year when the owl mating rituals begin, including 'hooting,'" explained Kelli Parke, an interpretive naturalist at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center.
"Great horned owls begin their mating season in the fall, earlier than most owls," she said. "But eastern screech owls and barred owls tend to start hooting by January and can continue through mid-March."
The Forest Preserve District has scheduled several owl hikes to take advantage of this annual hooting high point. Two “Listen for Owls Hike!” programs are scheduled for 6-8:30 p.m. on Friday, January 5, and Saturday, January 6, at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center. The programs are filling up fast, but a few spots remain open.
Also, a “Hoot Hike” is set for 5-6 p.m. Wednesday, January 24, at Isle a la Cache Museum. And “Owl Prowls” will be held at two locations from 7-9 p.m. Friday, February 2, and Saturday, February 3, at Plum Creek Nature Center and Hickory Creek Preserve – LaPorte Road Access.
Registration is required for all programs.
Owls live in many Will County forest preserves. For instance, both the great horned and eastern screech owl are year-round residents at Isle a la Cache preserve, said Mallory Fischer, an interpretive naturalist at Isle a la Cache Museum.
"The great horned owl has the most diverse diet of all North American raptors," she said. "They eat small mammals (rodents, skunks, rabbits), other raptors (falcons, smaller owls), and may supplement their diets with reptiles, fish or invertebrates."
Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve also is home to barred owls, said Kate Caldwell, an interpretive naturalist at Plum Creek. Barred owls like dense older stands of woodlands near wetlands, creeks, rivers and lakes. While most owls are nocturnal and they hunt at dusk and at night, barred owls can sometimes be heard during the day. Both great horned owls and barred owls hunt from perches.
"They watch and listen and then swoop to their prey grabbing it with their powerful talons," Caldwell said. Owl program attendees don't always get to see owls, but they can sometimes hear them. Caldwell said the call of the barred owl sounds like "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?"
Eastern screech owls "whinny" with loud "trills and tremolos, a sound that rises and falls," Caldwell added. "And great horned owls have four to six deep hoots. Most owl calls do not hoot. They sound more like barks. The great horned owl is one of the few owls that actually says "who, who."
And if you do happen upon an owl nest during a program or while hiking on your own, "You always want to respect the privacy of the animal by keeping your distance," Fischer advised.
Maintaining this respect and treading quietly are both part of the owl hike programs, Caldwell added. "We teach participants how to walk in silence through owl territory for approximately 1.5 miles," she said of the Plum Creek programs. "If we are lucky we will hear an owl. If we are very lucky, we will see an owl silhouette flying, hunting or on its perch. If we are very, very lucky, we will see the male and female flying from perch to perch and calling back and forth."
No matter what the owl sighting outcome, the programs are a fun way to learn about owls and to enjoy nature at night, Caldwell said. "Most of our owl hikes are silent, beautiful and brisk – and you get to watch dusk settling into evening."
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