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Of Ice & Owls

A late winter look at love

Climate change blows many winds, but we continue to associate February with snow and all things frozen. By now, winter has thoroughly cooled us down and made the summer garden into a wisp of memory. Social outings are as sluggish as the oil in the tractor, and the landscape is caught in a state of suspended animation.   

In the quiet of the evening, the cottonwoods emit loud cracks as the moisture within them wreaks havoc in their woody fiber. On super cold nights, those who live near the river can hear the ice cracking too, and a farmer may hear the yip of a fox in a frozen field. The wild winds thunder along the foothills and moan in the chimney at night. They mutter against the windowpanes, reminding us that we are mere mortals in the face of the bitter elements. All of this makes a crackling fire and a cup of hot chocolate sound pretty good.

But even in the grip of such dramatic natural forces, all is not silent and still. In fact, love is in the air.  January and February are the mating months for that fox yipping in the field as well as for the great horned owls. Years ago I lived alone on a ranch, a place where a person meets winter solitude face to face. And then came the owls.

They made themselves known in late January, well before I expected them. A pair of great horned owls returned to the tall spruces at the edge of the lawn, where I had seen them last summer. In the chilliest arc of the year, they set about the mysterious rites of owl courtship. It wasn’t just a matter of bird talk going back and forth across the wide, winter-beaten lawn. It was an opera of mood and timing.

The male, not surprisingly, had a more baritone voice. He also seemed a good deal more impatient. When he called to the female, the sound drifted down like a church bell pealing from a steeple—regal and insistent. If she did not reply, he would punctuate his haunting calls with a series of barking grunts.

Finally, she did respond, in varying tones, as if to say, “Yes, yes, I’m here.” They had chosen a battered old magpie nest and had made a few refurbishments, which the female supervised. Then courtship began, much of which I missed due to a stodgy thing called a job. Courting typically involves the puffing of the male’s chest, a certain amount of bobbing and bill-rubbing, offerings of food, and a great many peculiar sounds. During early February, there were times when they seemed to be laughing at each other, with much chuckling and giggling.

To add even more sentiment to an already charming story, they usually mate around Valentine’s Day. The eggs form surprisingly fast after mating, and incubation is complete after four or five weeks. Mom keeps the eggs and owlets safely under and around her while dad hunts for food.

When the white cloak of winter falls and all seems quiet, the pulse of life is beating all around us. And it’s worth noting that most human births occur in September, so the owls are not the only species who stay busy in deep winter.

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