The most widespread North American owl and the owl with the widest habitat range in the world, the great horned owl is well known to birders and non-birders alike. Large and aggressive, this owl is one of the most fearsome raptors.
Great Horned Owl, Flying Tiger
- Bill: Black, large, hooked
- Size: 22 inches long with 50-inch wingspan, tuft "ears"
- Colors: Brownish-gray, orange-rust, yellow, black, white
- Markings: Genders are similar with finely mottled brownish-gray upperparts with checkered barring on the wings and finer horizontal barring on slightly lighter underparts. The oval facial disk ranges from gray to orange-rust and is outlined with a thin black border. White around the bill extends onto the chin and throat. The eyes are bright yellow. Plumage color varies geographically, but all markings for great horned owls are similar.
Small to medium-sized mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians
Habitat and Migration:
Great horned owls can be found in all habitats where suitable game is available, from open deserts to thick woods to swampy marshes to isolated tundras. These birds can be found year-round throughout North America except in the most extreme Arctic regions, and they are almost as widespread in South America, though not typically seen in the deepest tropical rainforests. Though occasionally nomadic for hunting, great horned owls do not migrate.
The great horned owl has the classic "hoot" call with a deep, strong pitch. The hooting song lasts 3-8 syllables that increase in tempo in the center of the call. Male and female birds may sing together, and females use a slightly higher pitch. Young great horned owls use raspy barks and whines to get attention.
The great horned owl is fearless and aggressive, and will frequently attack prey larger and heavier than itself, including cats, skunks and porcupines. If a nesting area is threatened, these birds will even attack large dogs and other predators, including humans. They are primarily nocturnal birds and hunt from perches, where they silently watch and listen for prey before taking flight.
Great horned owls are monogamous birds that begin their nesting season in the winter, often laying eggs in January or February. The female parent will incubate the eggs for 30-35 days, and both parents will care for the owlets for an additional 35-45 days. Only one brood, typically with 1-5 eggs, is raised annually.
Attracting Great Horned Owls:
Birders who want to attract a great horned owl to their property should provide large trees and protected snags for roosting or nesting, and avoid using animal control methods that would eliminate food sources such as rodents, rabbits or other creatures. In many cases, however, great horned owls are seen as potentially dangerous and unwelcome guests either to pets or backyard birds, and many pet owners and backyard birders take steps to protect their pets from the owls rather than encourage the owls to stay nearby.
- Long-Eared Owl (Asio otus)
- Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa)
- Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo)
Photo – Great Horned Owl – Perched © Brendan Lally
Photo – Great Horned Owl in Flight © Vince Maidens
Photo – Great Horned Owlets © Vince Maidens