Great horned owls and laundry baskets: An unusual pairing to make ‘perfectly acceptable’ nests

Great horned owls and laundry baskets: An unusual pairing to make 'perfectly acceptable' nests
Brandon Williamson/submitted
Great Horned owls do not make their own nests, instead they take over existing ones. As a result, birders have started making nests out of laundry baskets to try and attract the nesting birds.

Great horned owls and laundry baskets may not seem like a natural pairing, but a local expert says it’s a perfect fit for the nesting birds.

The owls do not make their own nests, and instead prefer to take over existing nests, according to Ann Nightingale, a board member with the Rocky Point Bird Observatory.

“The truth is that most owls do not build their own nests, they take over the nests or suitable nesting accommodation that they come across,” Nightingale told CHEK News.

“This does happen occasionally, where a pair of great horned owls will take it over a raven’s nest or a crow’s nest or a red-tailed hawks nest or Cooper’s hawk nest, and the nest falls apart. So yes, it is a perfectly acceptable strategy to give them another replacement nest, put some sticks in the bottom of it and put it in a tree.”

Local Brandon Williamson had never heard of this before, so when he saw a social media post about owls nesting in a laundry basket, he grabbed his camera and a friend then went to check it out.

“We essentially tried to investigate and then we had a feeling that it was in a certain area,” Williamson said. “Then we went to that spot and we were quite excited to see the bit of turquoise up in the tree that signals that we were in the right spot.”

They stayed in the area for an hour and saw a mom and dad owl, two babies in the laundry basket, and a third baby on a branch beside the basket.

After seeing the owls, he did research and learned about the practice of making laundry basket nests.

Nightingale says great horned owls will use whatever they can find for a nest.

“As long as they can find a suitable box or hole or cavity that will work for them, they’re not fussy,” she said. “They’ll take what works for them, as great horned owl nest normally in a broken off or rotted out tree, where there’s a natural cavity, but as I say they will accept unnatural cavities as well.”

If you come across a great horned owl baby on the ground or in a tree and it isn’t flying away, Nightingale says there may not be anything to worry about.

“They can’t fly initially, and a lot of people think that there’s something wrong with them,” Nightingale said. “They just have to learn to fly just like we have to learn to walk.”

If you are interested in setting up a laundry basket owl nest, Nightingale says the internet has a number of resources available to teach you how. But you should be aware that it may be several years before an owl chooses your nest.

“They generally like fairly well-forested areas, you’re not going to get a great horned owl in an open tree along a driveway,” she said. “You have to be patient, one person who knew that there were owls in the area, still took them seven years for the animals to actually use the basket that they put up for them.”

She also says it is important to monitor the structural integrity of the nest, especially if it has been there for awhile.

“If you left the plastic mounted up there for a while it’s going to deteriorate, so don’t just leave it there for seven years. Because if the birds come in year seven, and they’re too heavy for what’s left of the basket, then you’re just inviting disaster,” Nightingale said.

“Anytime that you do anything to attract birds to your yard, you also have to be responsible for what happens to them when they get there.”

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Laura BroughamLaura Brougham

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