The Wildflower Center’s resident owl
For more than a decade, the Wildflower Center has been home to a nesting pair of great horned owls (Bubo virginianus). Lucky for us — and our guests — the female, who we call Athena, often nests in a very conspicuous place, right above the entrance to our Courtyard in the sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) planter nestled in the corner. When conditions are right and her eggs hatch into owlets, she provides a rare opportunity to view a wild great horned owl rearing her young.
This year, Athena arrived on March 1. She left the next day but returned to her nest on March 3. She’s currently looking quite cozy. See if you can spot her on your next visit!
Learn some fascinating facts about great horned owls below.
Great Horned Owl Facts
- Great horned owls are named for their prominent ear tufts (or horns). These “horns” are made up of feathers; they are not ears.
- The mother and father owls have very different jobs. The mother’s job is to incubate the eggs and to protect and feed the young. The father’s job is to hunt and deliver the prey to his family.
- How can we tell the male and female apart? Only the females sit on the nest; they have a special brood patch, which is designed to keep the eggs warm. The patch has lots of blood vessels that provide warmth to the eggs.
- Great horned owls usually lay 2 eggs but can lay up to 4. They lay their eggs over a period of days. The female will begin incubating once the first egg is laid, so the owlets hatch at different times.
- Adults have a wingspan of four feet but only weigh about five pounds.
- Great horned owls are very territorial; their territories can range from .1 to 1 square mile.
- Great horned owls have one of the broadest diets among owls. They will eat scorpions, smaller owls, rodents, rabbits and skunks. They are very opportunistic and generalists when it comes to what they eat.
- Owls cast pellets. These are made up of the indigestible parts (fur, bones and teeth) from their meal. When an owl eats a small animal, they swallow it whole. Most pellets are cast at roost before their next meal. If you find an owl pellet, you can learn a lot about the owls in your area and what they are eating. Whole skeletons can be put back together after dissecting a pellet. Biologists collect and dissect them to learn about owl diets.
For more information on great horned owls, see All About Birds.
Bill J. Boyd
Bill is a Wildflower Center volunteer and freelance photographer who loves to visually explore life’s beautiful moments. Retired from Texas Instruments in 2000, he needed a hobby and discovered a passion for photography. His main interests are nature, wildlife and civic events. Bill has been photographing Athena and her owlets since 2012 and is often the first to know when she’s arrived each spring. Most of the images you see of Athena and her family are his, and the Center is extremely lucky to benefit from his efforts!