Owls are interesting but few people encounter them because the birds are secretive — and active at night.

Twelve species make up the Minnesota owl list. They are all carnivores, eating amphibians, insects, fish, mice, rabbits, squirrels and small birds. Bigger prey also aren't safe. Owls go after pheasants and ducks, skunks and raccoons. Keep your cats indoors.

Lately I have spotted a day-flying snowy owl as it glided low over a city of Waconia neighborhood. The large white owl with dark bars and spots is a winter visitor and will be moving back to its Arctic breeding territory in early spring.

In late December, Tom Boevers, a very accomplished birder from Faribault, Minn., observed great horned and barred owls, both permanent residents. He also saw long-eared, snowy, and northern saw-whet owls, which are winter visitors there in Rice County. Tom pays close attention to habitats in trying to find owls.

I know that eastern screech-owls seek wood duck houses for winter shelter and nesting in early spring. Also, when we hear great horned owls (the most common Minnesota owl) duet-hooting in January, they are declaring nesting territories and reaffirming their bonds. Yes, these great horned owls are Minnesota's earliest nesting bird, some starting in January. Also, these big owls do not make their own nests, but may use a hollow tree cavity or an old hawk, crow, heron or squirrel nest in a large tree. Following a snow or sleet storm, we have seen a great horned owl incubating under a cover of snow or ice.

So why nest so early? These parents feed their young for 12 weeks or more, and the young are voracious feeders and their food is difficult to obtain. So it's much easier for their parents to provide for their needs before the spring tree and shrub foliage becomes too dense and makes hunting difficult.

Some other observations:

  • For all living things, Minnesota winter is the season of survival, and for us it also can be the season of frozen beauty. Lake ice is often heard cracking and thundering as it contracts with the cold or expands during warmer days. These roars and rolls are eerie sounds but don't necessarily mean the ice is unsafe for fishing or skating. They remind us to respect all ice covers.
  • In some parts of northern Minnesota, ruffed grouse dive into powdery snow to keep warm at night, and timber wolves travel on the wind-packed snow of lakes. Also in the north, the chattering of red squirrels and the croaking sounds of common ravens break the quiet air.
  • A spectacular behavior pattern of American crows in winter is their communal roosting. They roost in large flocks, and every morning the birds disperse from the roosts in small groups to find food. They return at sunset the same way.

Jim Gilbert has taught and worked as a naturalist for more than 50 years.