By David Hawke -- Ah, mid-winter and love is in the air.
Although St. Valentine's Day may be a week or so away, that's not what I'm talking about; nope, the lovelorn critters referred to aren't the upright two-legged beasties that walk the woods with high-tech snowshoes and ear-buds stuck in their head, I refer to the great horned owls and red foxes of your neighbourhood.
These species and a few more have to get on with the mating process if the young are to hatch or be born just as winter gives way to spring. They are all part of some vast eternal plan to keep their populations participating in this game called the ecosystem. As the saying goes, "snooze ya lose"; if they want their kids to arrive with the warm weather and abundant food, then now is the time for some wilderness romance.
Starting in late January, if you listen carefully within the deep dark woods, you may hear the booming calls of the great horned owls. The calls are two-fold in meaning: one is to establish a territory boundary (cheaper than chain-link fence) and the second is to attract a mate (always a challenge). Within the territory has to be at least one good nesting site, usually a crow or hawk nest from last year, and abundant food such as snowshoe hare, squirrels and meadow voles.
It has been noted that owls will not mate if the food supply is low. Nor will they use the same nest more than a couple years in a row. Family planning is difficult if you are an owl, with all these variables being thrown at you.
However, if the suitor is successful, the new lady of the woods will begin her re-construction of the old nest. Bob (the owl) will bring bits of branches to the lofty apartment, and Sally (the other owl) will arrange them suitably, then re-arrange them, and then decide perhaps a branch of another length would be better if Bob would be so kind to go and get one. Oh, and Bob, could you pick up a rabbit on the way home. And Bob, try to avoid being mobbed by those nasty crows again, you know how that makes you so upset.
Male owls are smaller than female owls (notice I didn't say female owls are fatter) but this has its advantages, as the lean and nimble male can hunt efficiently, while the, ahem, ample body size of the female is perfect for covering the eggs in the nest. Everything for a reason.
February will be spent brooding the eggs in anticipation for a March hatching, often in the height of a late-winter storm. And by late April, the little owlets will be off the nest and seeking their own voles, moths and mice.
As for the red foxes, mid-winter is also their time to party. A pair of foxes will raise the kits (that would be the young 'uns) together, but last autumn the previous family all went their separate ways, especially the young males, which can travel up to 250 kilometres into new frontiers (and so far away from Mom and Dad and their constant nagging on how to catch grasshoppers and how you have to finish up all your mouse). This wide-ranging travel takes them, and their genes, into new neighbourhoods and new relationships.
A dog (that's the scientific way to say Charlie) and a vixen (that would be Crystal) fox will set up home in a hollow log, or a cave under a wind-thrown tree root, or if possible in an enlarged groundhog burrow. As they frolic in the new fallen snow and get to know each other (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) over January and February, they forge a strong team of two that will find a suitable home and make it comfortable in time for the arrival of the kits in late March.
I opened this article with a reference to love. But do owls and foxes actually 'love' each other, or do they just join up to reproduce to carry on the species lineage? Some species, such as ducks and mink, indeed exhibit a very short time of togetherness, but later leave the new Mom to be by herself and raise the kids.
Spring (oh, glorious spring) is still a fair bit off in the future, yet the local foxes and owls are currently in the midst of preparing for that next season. Somehow, without the aid of calendars, weather satellites, the internet, chat lines or almanacs, Bob and Sally and Charlie and Crystal know that now, right now, is the time to prepare for what is to come (cue violin music and pan to sky shot, fade to black).
Dave’s Notebook: While the anti-vax hooligans drag us a step closer to civil war it's comforting to know that Nature will provide a balm for our troubled souls.
© 2022 David J. Hawke