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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Great Horned Owl

Bubo virginianus ORDER: STRIGIFORMES FAMILY: STRIGIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

With its long, earlike tufts, intimidating yellow-eyed stare, and deep hooting voice, the Great Horned Owl is the quintessential owl of storybooks. This powerful predator can take down birds and mammals even larger than itself, but it also dines on daintier fare such as tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs. It’s one of the most common owls in North America, equally at home in deserts, wetlands, forests, grasslands, backyards, cities, and almost any other semi-open habitat between the Arctic and the tropics.

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Keys to identification Help

Owls
Owls
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    These are large, thick-bodied owls with two prominent feathered tufts on the head. The wings are broad and rounded. In flight, the rounded head and short bill combine to create a blunt-headed silhouette.

  • Color Pattern

    Great Horned Owls are mottled gray-brown, with reddish brown faces and a neat white patch on the throat. Their overall color tone varies regionally from sooty to pale.

  • Behavior

    Great Horned Owls are nocturnal. You may see them at dusk sitting on fence posts or tree limbs at the edges of open areas, or flying across roads or fields with stiff, deep beats of their rounded wings. Their call is a deep, stuttering series of four to five hoots.

  • Habitat

    Look for this widespread owl in woods, particularly young woods interspersed with fields or other open areas. The broad range of habitats they use includes deciduous and evergreen forests, swamps, desert, tundra edges, and tropical rainforest, as well as cities, orchards, suburbs, and parks.

Range Map Help

Great Horned Owl Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Great Horned Owl

    Adult
    • Large, heavy-bodied owl with noticeable ear tufts
    • Glowing yellow or orange eyes on tawny brown facial disc
    • Densely barred underparts
    • Gray, brown, and black camouflage pattern on upperparts
    • © Anne Elliot, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, September 2009
  • Adult

    Great Horned Owl

    Adult
    • Large owl with obvious ear tufts
    • Pale brown facial disc
    • Overall coloration variable, but always heavily patterned on back and barred on belly
    • Glowing yellow or orange eyes
    • © Markus Clement, Hershey Lake Park, Ontario, Canada, March 2011
  • Adult

    Great Horned Owl

    Adult
    • Large, bulky owl with broad wings
    • Heavily pattern above
    • Glowing yellow or orange eyes
    • Ear tufts lay flat in flight
    • © Pat Kavanagh, Etzikom, Alberta, Canada, October 2010
  • Adult

    Great Horned Owl

    Adult
    • Large, bulky owl with noticeable ear tufts
    • Birds of the Great Plains and central Canada average paler/frostier
    • Dense barring on underparts
    • Camouflage pattern on back and wings
    • © Reid Barclay, Dover, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, January 2008
  • Adult with Juvenile

    Great Horned Owl

    Adult with Juvenile
    • Adult large and bulky with obvious ear tufts
    • Adult has heavily barred underparts
    • Juvenile mostly covered in down, but with large, yellow eyes like adult
    • Tawny brown facial disc on both
    • © Donald Thompson, Highland City , Florida, March 2010
  • Juveniles

    Great Horned Owl

    Juveniles
    • Large, glowing yellow eyes on tawny facial disc
    • Ear tufts not developed yet
    • Camouflage pattern on back
    • Dense barring starting to show on belly
    • © Cameron Rognan, Mojave Desert, Washington, Utah, June 2010
  • Juveniles

    Great Horned Owl

    Juveniles
    • Mostly covered in fluffy down
    • Glowing yellow eyes
    • Tawny brown facial disc
    • © Robinsegg, Yellowstone National Park, Washington, June 2009

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Long-eared Owl

    Adult
    • Superficially similar to Great Horned, but much smaller and skinnier
    • Large ear tufts are closer together on head
    • Bright, rusty orange facial disc
    • Dark mottling on underparts
    • © Cameron Rognan, San Bernadino, California, October 2007
  • Adult

    Long-eared Owl

    Adult
    • Much smaller and more slender than Great-horned Owl
    • Often appears "skinny" and vertically-oriented
    • Proportionally larger ear tufts sit closer together
    • Dark cross-hatches on underparts
    • © Ben Smith, Antelope Valley, California, March 2011
  • Adult

    Barred Owl

    Adult
    • Smaller than Great Horned Owl with rounded head and no ear tufts
    • Large, black eyes
    • Vertical brown streaking on belly
    • Brown and white mottled wings/back
    • © Grant Hickey, Ontario, Canada, November 2010

Similar Species

Great Horned Owls are the largest common owl in North America. Great Gray Owls of northern North America are diurnal, with a larger, grayer head and without ear tufts. Barred Owls are slightly smaller than Great Horned Owls, with dark eyes and without ear tufts. Barn Owls are smaller and much paler than Great Horned Owls, often appearing all white when flying at dusk. They have a unique, heart-shaped face and lack ear tufts. The Great Horned Owl’s deep, off-rhythm hooting is also unlike other North American owls and fairly easy to recognize.

Regional Differences

Great Horned Owls vary in color tone across their range: birds from the Pacific Northwest tend to be dark sooty; individuals across the Southwest are paler and grayer; and birds from subarctic Canada can be almost white.

Backyard Tips

Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.