Majestic bald eagles and handsome great horned owls have much in common, though they are in different bird families.

They are large, feathered predators (raptors) that are common throughout most of North America. And they are the earliest birds to nest here in southeastern Pennsylvania.

In this area, pairs of both of these stately species begin courting in December. One can hear the owls of a pair hooting to each other at dawn and dusk through that month. And we notice pairs of bald eagles perched close to each other and calling to one another at any time.

By the second week in February, each female of both these raptors lays one to three eggs in her large, open stick nursery, which is lined with grass or pine needles and built firmly in a crotch of a tall tree.

A female eagle in Lancaster County that I have been watching via an online live camera laid her first egg this year on Feb. 9. And a horned owl female in central Maryland laid her first egg of this year on the same day. A month later, the helpless, white-fluffed young of both kinds will hatch.

Elegant pairs of bald eagles and great horned owls hatch young early, so those youngsters will be independent of their parents by early June, when prey is plentiful. And those immature raptors have all summer and autumn to develop their hunting skills before the hardships of winter set in.

But each pair of these beautiful eagles and owls must work together to raise offspring so early in the year, when cold weather still prevails.

While the slightly larger female of each pair broods the eggs and small babies, guarding them from predators and cold weather, her mate hunts for the whole family. Male great horns now hunt day and night.

But later, when the eaglets and owlets are feathered and big enough to defend themselves, both parents of each pair hunt prey animals at the same time to keep their rapidly growing youngsters well fed.

Through live cameras and our computer screen, I have been watching a few pairs of bald eagles and great horned owls feeding their young in their treetop cradles in the past few years.   The eagles bring larger fish to their young, and an occasional coot, duck, muskrat, cottontail rabbit, and woodchuck. The owls bring lots of rats and muskrats to their young in their nests, plus rabbits and medium-sized birds, including grackles.

There is some competition for food between these raptors. Each adult of both genders and species tears off bits of meat from their victims and tenderly presents that meat, bit by bit, to their babies. However, those dead animals in the nests, until eaten, draw lots of flies.

It’s inspiring and entertaining to watch activities via live cameras in eagle and owl nurseries, without those raptors knowing they are being watched. The lovely feathering of the adults is obvious — and so are the powers of their beaks and talons.

We see the young resting and sleeping, being fed, growing, exercising their flight muscles, and, finally, fledging their nests.

To see these exciting birds and their progeny at home, search in your web browser for “live camera bald eagle nests” or “live camera great horned owl nests.” Then be ready to be thrilled by these large, wild raptors.        


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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