Spring is for the Young
March 20, 2019
Not all creatures have given up on spring ever happening. Some are counting on it. And soon.
Great horned owls and Canada geese are sitting on eggs now, or soon will be.
Two totally different Montana bird species with different diets and nesting habits have placed all their eggs in one spring basket.
Great horned owls are sitting on eggs now, that will soon hatch if they haven't already, because they must.
Think back to those January nights that, looking back, seemed downright subtropical. If you heard a hoot-hoot-hoot, it was the mating ritual of the great horned owl. No other Montana owls court and mate during the winter.
After mating, the owls will continue to hoot into February, not so much to proclaim their love and affection but to stake out a territory and warn other owls away.
So, the great horned owl mates and begins nesting in the dead of winter, which this year was February and early March. Must be crazy, right? Maybe. Or maybe no other birds are as smart as the wise old owl.
Actually, it's neither wisdom nor craziness that drives the great horned owl to nest so early. Rather, it's just that it takes so darn long to raise a young owl.
First, the female owl takes two to three days to lay two to three eggs, then she sits on them (incubation) for 30-35 days.
After hatching, the young birds will remain in the nest for close to two months before their first flight, called fledging. That can be mid- to late May or later.
Then the young must be taught and practice to hunt at night, neither short nor simple tasks. It can take as long as six months after hatching – into September – before the young have fully acquired their first winter plumage and are good fliers and hunters.
Young Canada geese don't require all that nurturing, yet peak hatching is still early – from the end of April to the first week of May in north central Montana.
That's probably an evolutionary holdover. Canada geese likely evolved as arctic nesters before they started nesting in more temperate areas.
In the Arctic, nesting, hatching and fledging must come early because the growing season is short. Canada geese carried that behavior forward even when they began nesting in temperate areas.
As green grass and sprouts appear first, geese evolved to eat that. They're vegetarians, unlike ducks, which focus on invertebrates – think worms, snails, aquatic insects. Ducks evolved to nest and hatch a month or so later when invertebrates are available.
A Canada goose nest typically has six eggs, which are incubated for about 28 days. If we pick May 1 for hatching, go backwards four weeks for the beginning of incubation, then go back again six days – the female goose lays an egg a day – that means a geese pair are setting up shop the third to fourth week of March. Even earlier, as the pair spends a few days picking out a nesting site and building a nest.
This year's snow cover may force geese to delay nesting a little bit. Besides picking a nest site, geese need a few days of grazing on new grass as a high-protein food to make eggs.
Depending on where in Montana you live, there is not a lot of green grass now. But the entire nesting sequence will progress quickly once the snow melts.
And it will melt, soon, if long-term weather forecasts are accurate.
That means spring will bear down on us next month like a fast-moving freight train. We'll see.