Great-horned owls appear on FHSU campus

Summer term always seems a bit lonely on a college campus. This summer, however, Fort Hays State University's campus had a few extra visitors. Four great-horned owls were spotted in the trees on FHSU's "quad."

This sighting does not come as a surprise to FHSU's ornithologist, Dr. Greg Farley.

"Great-horned owls nest somewhere on campus most every year," he said. "This species of owl is a year-round resident in this region of the country and occurs regularly in Ellis County."

In fact, Farley said, great-horned owls are responsible for the familiar "hoot, hoot, hoot" sound that can be heard on an Ellis County winter or spring night.

The birds have received some encouragement to nest at FHSU. Farley and Al Ashmore, retired Grounds Department employee, placed a pre-constructed nest atop McCartney Hall in 1997 so the owls could use it regularly and students could easily observe it.

Farley said that all owls use abandoned nests constructed by other birds such as hawks and crows. In the past, the owls have also nested adjacent to President Hammond's house and in the cavity of a dead tree along Big Creek.

The birds seen on campus are speculated to be an adult pair and their surviving offspring. They are typically not spotted outside of a small region on campus, Farley said. "They are territorial and spend the majority of their time in one location."

According to Farley, the great-horned owl is not the only type of owl that can be seen in this area.

"Many migrant owls spend the winter here. The winters here are relatively mild and the extensive range and cropland provide accessible rodent and rabbit prey."

Great-horned owls are the first native birds to breed each year, typically nesting in February and March. Farley said that it is not unusual to see females incubating their eggs while they are covered in snow.

Adult owls can be seen close to the nest during the nesting period. They are very protective during incubation and the early stages of development for the young birds.

When the owls are no longer nesting, they rest in shady, cool places during the day. "They will often move as the day progresses and the position of the sun shifts," Farley said.

If observers have noticed crows chasing the owls, they are witnessing an effort by the crows to drive the owls away from the area where the crows themselves live.

"When night comes, the crows can become prey," said Farley.

Ikejiri Takehito, paleontology graduate student, studied growth rates of the owls nesting atop McCartney Hall. Takehito discovered that the owls were feeding on pigeons, squirrels, skunks, pheasants, beetles and even an occasional egret.

Farley speculates that at least one of the owls will stay on campus the rest of the year and try to breed again in 2004.

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