Great Horned Owl Facts, Pictures & Information

Great horned owl facts, pictures and in-depth information: discover one of the largest, and most widespread, owls of the Americas…

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Great Horned Owl Facts

  1. The scientific name of the great horned owl is Bubo virginianus. It belongs to the family Strigidae.
  2. The “horns” of the great horned owl are actually feathered ear tufts.
  3. The species is also known as the “tiger owl” (early naturalists described the bird as a “winged tiger”). Another name for the great horned owl is “cat owl” on behalf of its cat-like ear tufts.
  4. The great horned owl is the heaviest owl of South America, and the second-heaviest in North America, after the closely-related snowy owl.
  5. The species is found throughout much of North and South America, and can live in a wide range of habitats, including deserts and forests.
  6. No other North American bird of prey has a diet as varied as that of the great horned owl; it will eat just about any animal it can catch – even skunks.
  7. The stiff feathers that form the disk-like face of the great horned owl help direct sound to the owl’s ears.
  8. Like all owls, the great horned owl has special wing feathers with a serrated front edge and a velvety surface, both of which are adaptations for silent flying.  
  9. The great horned owl can’t move its eyes, but it can turn its head over 180°, allowing it to see in any direction.
  10. Great horned owls mate for life, courting one another with their low hoots.

The Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

The great horned owl is a large owl found in a wide variety of habitats (from desert to forest) in both North and South America. It is one of North America’s most common owls.

Named for its horn-like feathered ear tufts, the great horned owl ranges in color from mottled chestnut brown to pale brown/white. The species is primarily nocturnal, and due to its large size is capable of taking prey as large as a striped skunk, Virginia opossum and osprey.

Great Horned Owl Identification

Great Horned Owl In Daylight
Great Horned Owl In Daylight

The great horned owl can be identified by its large size, ear tufts, orange / yellow eyes, mottled brown / grey plumage, and white throat patch.

The owl’s face disk ranges in color from chestnut brown to gray, depending upon the region in which it is found. The chest is pale and barred. The wings are relatively short, but broad.

The wings of the great horned owl are specially adapted for silent flight. The front edge of the owl’s wing feathers is serrated, and the top of the wing feathers have a velvety texture. Both of these features help prevent noisy air turbulence when the owl is flying.

Great Horned Owl Call

The call of the great horned owl is a series of four to five deep hoots. The hoot of the male is lower than that of the female. If you can hear two owls hooting, and one is lower than the other, it’s likely to be a male and a female calling to one another.

Males hoot throughout the year, but females only hoot during the mating season.

You can hear a great horned owl call in the video below:

Great Horned Owl Family And Genus

The great horned owl belongs to the family Strigidae – the “true owl” family.

(Strigidae is one of two owl families, the other being Tytonidae, the “barn owl” family.)

The closest living relative of the great horned owl is the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). Both species belong to the genus Bubo – a group of true owls that includes both the horned owls and the eagle owls.

Most of the owls of this genus, including the huge Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo) – another closely-related species – are found outside of the Americas.

Great Horned Owl Size

The great horned owl reaches weights of over 5.5lb / 2.5 kg, making it the second-heaviest owl of North America (after the snowy owl), and the heaviest of South America.

The average body length of the great horned owl is around 22 in. / 56cm

The average weight of the female great horned owl is around 3.5 lb. / 1.6 kg. As is the case with many raptors, the female is the larger of the sexes. Male great horned owls average around 2.7 lb. / 1.2 kg in weight.

Great Horned Owl On Arm
The great horned owl is the second-heaviest owl found in North America

(The largest owl of North America – by length rather than weight – is the great gray owl Strix nebulosa)

Great Horned Owl Wingspan

The wingspan of a great horned owl ranges from 3 ft to 5 ft (91 to 153 cm) and averages 48 in. (122 cm).

While large, the wingspan of the great horned owl is significantly smaller than that of the snowy owl, which averages around 60 in. / 153 cm.

Where Is The Great Horned Owl Found?

Great Horned Owl On Ground
Great horned owl at the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, Wyoming

The great horned owl is found across a vast range that covers much of the Americas. The species is resident from Alaska and Canada in the north, to northeast Argentina in the south. The species has even been seen as far south as the South Sandwich Islands.

Great Horned Owl Habitat

The great horned owl is found in a wide range of habitats, including boreal, temperate and subtropical forests, shrublands, rocky areas, grasslands, deserts, farmland and urban areas.

Great Horned Owl Behavior

Like most owls, the great horned owl is nocturnal. It can often be seen at dusk, perched on a branch or fence, or flying silently over open country.

The great horned owl usually hunts at night, but can occasionally be seen hunting during the day. The owl is often mobbed by flocks of crows, who see the owl (correctly) as a potential threat.

During the day the great horned owl will roost in the branches of a large tree, or in another area, such as a cliff ledge, in which it will be well-concealed.

Outside of the breeding season, the great horned owl is solitary, although mated pairs will stay in the same territory. Single birds or mated pairs will establish a territory and will protect this from other great horned owls. Territorial disputes between owls can lead to serious injury or even death.

Males hoot throughout the year to notify other owls that their territory is taken.

Although the great horned owl may wander significant distances, it is not migratory.

What Do Great Horned Owls Eat?

The great horned owl eats a wide variety of prey animals, including animals as large as striped skunks, Virginia opossums, geese and ospreys. Its diet is believed to include a wider variety of prey animals than that of any other American raptor. Great horned owl diet varies from region to region; the species will eat just about anything it is able to capture.

Mammals, including skunks, rabbits, rats, mice, shrews and ground squirrels form the majority of the owl’s diet.

Birds such as pheasants, grouse and waterfowl; reptiles such as lizards and snakes; and invertebrates (usually insects, but also crustaceans, arachnids and worms) are also taken.

The great horned owl is one of the few predators that hunts skunks. As a result, great horned owl nests – and the owls themselves – often smell of skunks.

Great Horned Owl Predators

The great horned owl sits near the top of the food chain and has few predators, especially as an adult. Potential great horned owl predators include eagles such as the golden eagle and bald eagle. The owl’s eggs may be taken by animals such as crows, raccoons, foxes and bears.

Lifecycle Of The Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl With Chick
Great Horned Owl With Chick

The mating season of the great horned owl begins earlier than that of most other North American birds – the owls’ courtship calls may be heard from the autumn, with nesting beginning in late winter.

Rather than building its own nest, the great horned owl will use that built by another large bird such as a hawk, crow or heron. The great horned owl may also nest on cliff ledges, hollows in trees, or even on the ground.

The female will usually lay 2 or 3 eggs, but clutch size can range from 1 to a maximum of 6 eggs. The eggs are around 2.2 in. / 55 mm in length and dull white in color.

The eggs take around a month to hatch, and are incubated by the female. During this time the male hunts for both birds.

Great horned owl chick
Great horned owl chick

Both parents provide food for the chicks, which begin exploring the area around the nest after 5-6 weeks, and begin to fly soon after. It takes from ten weeks to 3 months for the chicks to become proficient flyers.

The young owls will stay in the vicinity of their parents until fall, but will usually have dispersed by the winter.

Great Horned Owl Lifespan

The average lifespan of a great horned owl in the wild is 13 years, with the longest known lifespan of a wild great horned owl being 28 years.

The lifespan of great horned owl in captivity is significantly longer, averaging around 20 years.

Is The Great Horned Owl Endangered?

The great horned owl is not endangered and its IUCN conservation status is “Least Concern” (Source). Its population is stable, and the species is found across a wide range.

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