Great Horned Owls Nest

All I can say about last week’s start of the four-week 2024 Massachusetts spring turkey-hunting season is, what a difference a year makes.

It matters not that I no longer view wild turkeys through a hunter’s lens. My interest in the state gamebird will never fade. I will forever continue to observe and learn about these large roadside birds, which did not exist during my South Deerfield boyhood.

Last year, beginning about a month before opening day, I was greeted daily over the first half-mile of my daybreak walks by aggressive gobbling along the northern perimeter – rain or shine, far and near – interrupting the calming still of dawn. Later, on the Meadow Lane home stretch, occasional gobbles could be heard from the wooded western hillside across the road from my upper Greenfield Meadows home.

This year, not a peep – not even one of those distant, barely discernable rattles I long ago learned to identify. Hmmmm?


I suppose, with deep analysis, I probably could have arrived at a hypothesis sooner than I did. But I can’t say I ever really dwelled on it. I just kept my daily antennae alert, heard nothing and figured the gobbling would soon begin.

One obvious factor that didn’t line up and only confused matters was our mild winter and early spring. Why, of all years, would spring gobblers choose silence this year? It made no sense. Just another peculiar stoke of nature, I surmised.

Then, on the evening of the April 8 eclipse, my phone rang. A neighbor and friend called to chat about a new discovery in his yard. A woman who lives across the street from him had alerted him to a Great Horned Owl (GHO) nest, wedged into the crotch of a dead white pine about 40 feet above his driveway.

Interested, I walked to his yard to take a look – my first observation of a GHO nest in more than 70 years on this planet. What a treat. A mating pair had taken over and reinforced a former crow, raven, red-tailed hawk or maybe even gray squirrel nest, and it contained two large, light-colored fledglings being fed by the adults. According to many sources, GHO nests typically produce two nestlings.

By the time I saw the fledglings, I would estimate they were about six weeks old. They stood stoic and motionless on the nest’s edge, calmly peering down at me on that first encounter. Numerous online sources report that GHO nestlings begin practicing hunting skills at three weeks by pouncing on sticks comprising the nest. By six weeks they become “branchers,” hopping from limb to limb and eventually stretching their wings in preparation for flight.

Awkward flight tests then begin at seven weeks, and they maneuver their way to the ground after about eight weeks. Their parents continue to feed and protect them through the summer, and by autumn the young ones move on to seek new territory of their own.

The fact that the nest was there didn’t come as a great surprise. I had been aware of new owls in the neighborhood for at least a few months. I now know the timing made perfect sense. Online information identifies GHO as early nesters in the bird world.

I can’t recall when I first starting hearing those unfamiliar adult hoots, but it was probably in late December or January. I regularly heard them as I passed marshy meadows skirting the upland base north of my home. I immediately suspected GHO because I knew there had been a previous nest in the same area many years ago, when I was directly impacted.

Back then my sons were schoolboys and my daily Recorder shift brought me home at around 2 a.m. My last chore before bed was to run and water my English springer spaniel gundogs out back by the brook. That was the last time I remember hearing the long, haunting GHO hoot, which in no way resembles joyous barred owl hooting with its familiar cadence of Who cooks the stew? Who cooks for you awwwwwllllll?

When my small, female, calico Manx, Kiki, went missing, I felt certain she had been the victim of those large, wee-hour GHO I kept hearing, and I still believe this to be the case. Known as the “tiger of the north woods,” they hunt small animals like rabbits and squirrels. Kiki was no larger than a rabbit, and her highly visible white base would have made her easy pickings as she hunted the backyard stonewall day and night for mice, chipmunks, and you name it.

I now believe that the loud presence of GHO in the neighborhood is a likely reason why turkeys seem to have vacated territory within earshot of my home and morning ramble. I know turkeys do not view owls as friends. That I discovered as a turkey hunter who employed barred-owl locating calls to stimulate aggressive responses from combative gobblers establishing their domain.

On the other hand, hen turkeys likely try to avoid building their ground nests near the nests of large owls capable of devouring their broods. If hens leave a habitat, gobblers follow.

Thus far this year, my lone Meadows turkey sighting occurred at around 7 a.m. in corn stubble slightly more than a mile south of my home. There I caught two lonely hens scratching and feeding their way west toward Colrain Road. That’s it. Not another sight or sound of turkeys in a place where they have previously thrived. This at daybreak no less, prime time for gobbling – better still gobbling that carries great distances from high in a tree.

My neighborhood owlets disappeared from view about two weeks ago and are likely by now flying and helping to thin out the upper Meadows squirrel and rabbit population. I hope they eat young woodchucks, too. Woodchucks have menaced me and my neighbors in recent years.

As for the temporary scarcity of turkeys, well, I can’t say I’m concerned. They may not be in my backyard these days, but I don’t have to travel far to find them.


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