Great horned owls are one of the most common and widespread nocturnal raptors, but their superb camouflage can make identification tricky. Birders who know how to identify a great horned owl will be better prepared to recognize when it's a different bird they see, which can make all owl identification easier.
Facial Identification of Great Horned Owls
A good look at the face is the easiest way to identify great horned owls. This is the most distinctive part of these birds, and is the most easily seen because these raptors tend to face any threat so they can examine it themselves. This gives birders a great view of the key field marks, and knowing the facial clues for these birds is essential when they are roosting or perched in thick branches or foliage and their bodies cannot be seen.
When you see an owl's face, look for these clues to see if it is a great horned owl…
- Facial Disk: The facial disk is the most distinct part of any owl's head, and the great horned owl has a broad oval-shaped disk. It varies in color depending on where the owl is seen, but can range from buff to orange, rimmed in black.
- Ear Tufts: The owl's "horns" are long tufts of feathers that help break up its outline for better camouflage. On a great horned owl, these tufts are set at the edge of the head quite far apart, but may not always be visible – the bird can adjust them as needed and they may not always show distinctly.
- Brow Ridge: The brow ridge of the great horned owl gives these raptors a brooding or menacing look. The paler brow contrasts with darker plumage on the head, accentuating this feature.
- Eye: These owls have pale eyes that can vary from yellow to orange. The pupil is dark, however, and in low light conditions can make the eyes seem much darker, because less of the colored iris will be visible.
- Bill: The strongly hooked bill is black and may be hidden by rictal bristles and other facial feathers. If the bird has been feeding recently, the bill may still show a sheen of blood or a reddish color, but this can be difficult to see except at very close range.
- Body Plumage: The overall plumage of the great horned owl is mottled buff, brown and black with finer barring on the underparts, giving it superb camouflage. While this characteristic may not be seen if the bird is hiding in deep foliage, it can still be a useful clue to the owl's identity.
Photo – Great Horned Owl © Andrea Westmoreland