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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
18.1–24.8 in
46–63 cm
Wingspan
39.8–57.1 in
101–145 cm
Weight
32.1–88.2 oz
910–2500 g
Relative Size
Slightly larger than a Red-tailed Hawk.
Other Names
  • Grand-duc d'Amérique (French)
  • Búsho cornudo (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Great Horned Owls are fierce predators that can take large prey, including raptors such as Ospreys, Peregrine Falcons, Prairie Falcons, and other owls. They also eat much smaller items such as rodents, frogs, and scorpions.
  • When clenched, a Great Horned Owl’s strong talons require a force of 28 pounds to open. The owls use this deadly grip to sever the spine of large prey.
  • If you hear an agitated group of cawing American Crows, they may be mobbing a Great Horned Owl. Crows may gather from near and far and harass the owl for hours. The crows have good reason, because the Great Horned Owl is their most dangerous predator.
  • Even though the female Great Horned Owl is larger than her mate, the male has a larger voice box and a deeper voice. Pairs often call together, with audible differences in pitch.
  • Great Horned Owls are covered in extremely soft feathers that insulate them against the cold winter weather and help them fly very quietly in pursuit of prey. Their short, wide wings allow them to maneuver among the trees of the forest.
  • Great Horned Owls have large eyes, pupils that open widely in the dark, and retinas containing many rod cells for excellent night vision. Their eyes don’t move in their sockets, but they can swivel their heads more than 180 degrees to look in any direction. They also have sensitive hearing, thanks in part to facial disc feathers that direct sound waves to their ears.
  • The oldest Great Horned Owl on record was at least 28 years old when it was found in Ohio in 2005.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Found all across North America up to the northern tree line, Great Horned Owls usually gravitate toward secondary-growth woodlands, swamps, orchards, and agricultural areas, but they are found in a wide variety of deciduous, coniferous or mixed forests. In some areas, such as the southern Appalachians, they prefer old-growth stands. Their home range usually includes some open habitat—such as fields, wetlands, pastures, or croplands—as well as forest. In deserts, they may use cliffs or juniper for nesting. Great Horned Owls are also fairly common in wooded parks, suburban area, and even cities.

Food


Mammals

Great Horned Owls have the most diverse diet of all North American raptors. Their prey range in size from tiny rodents and scorpions to hares, skunks, geese, and raptors. They eat mostly mammals and birds—especially rabbits, hares, mice, and American Coots, but also many other species including voles, moles, shrews, rats, gophers, chipmunks, squirrels, woodchucks, marmots, prairie dogs, bats, skunks, house cats, porcupines, ducks, loons, mergansers, grebes, rails, owls, hawks, crows, ravens, doves, and starlings. They supplement their diet with reptiles, insects, fish, invertebrates, and sometimes carrion. Although they are usually nocturnal hunters, Great Horned Owls sometimes hunt in broad daylight. After spotting their prey from a perch, they pursue it on the wing over woodland edges, meadows, wetlands, open water, or other habitats. They may walk along the ground to stalk small prey around bushes or other obstacles.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
2.1–2.2 in
5.3–5.6 cm
Egg Width
1.8–1.9 in
4.5–4.7 cm
Incubation Period
30–37 days
Nestling Period
42 days
Egg Description
Dull white and nearly spherical, with a rough surface.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, with closed eyes, pink skin, and white down on upperparts.
Nest Description

Nests often consist of sticks and vary widely in size, depending on which species originally built the nest (usually Red-tailed Hawks, other hawk species, crows, ravens, herons, or squirrels). Great Horned Owls may line the nest with shreds of bark, leaves, downy feathers plucked from their own breast, fur or feathers from prey, or trampled pellets. In some areas they add no lining at all. Nests deteriorate over the course of the breeding season, and are seldom reused in later years.

Nest Placement

Tree

Great Horned Owls typically nest in trees such as cottonwood, juniper, beech, pine, and others. They usually adopt a nest that was built by another species, but they also use cavities in live trees, dead snags, deserted buildings, cliff ledges, and human-made platforms. In the Yukon they nest in white spruces with “witches’ brooms,” which are clumps of dense foliage caused by a fungus. They occasionally nest on the ground. Pairs may roost together near the future nest site for several months before laying eggs.

Behavior


Aerial Dive

Great Horned Owls roost in trees, snags, thick brush, cavities, ledges, and human-made structures. They are active mostly during the night—especially at dusk and before dawn. When food supplies are low they may begin hunting in the evening and continue into the early morning; in winter they may hunt during daylight hours. Mated pairs are monogamous and defend their territories with vigorous hooting, especially in the winter before egg-laying and in the fall when their young leave the area. Great Horned Owls respond to intruders and other threats with bill-clapping, hisses, screams, and guttural noises, eventually spreading their wings and striking with their feet if the threat escalates. They may kill other members of their own species. Crows, ravens, songbirds, and raptors often harass Great Horned Owls with loud, incessant calls and by dive-bombing, chasing, and even pecking them. Unattended eggs and nestlings may fall prey to foxes, coyotes, raccoons, lynx, raptors, crows, and ravens. Both members of a pair may stay within the territory outside of the breeding season, but they roost separately.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Great Horned Owls are common and widespread throughout much of the Americas. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, between 1966 and 2010 their populations were stable in the U.S. but declined in Canada, resulting in an overall population decline just under 1 percent per year (resulting in a cumulative loss of 30 percent). Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 6 million with about 45 percent of the population in the U.S., 14 percent in Canada, and 7 percent in Mexico. They rate a 6 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Great Horned Owls were heavily hunted until the practice was abolished in the mid-twentieth century. Some illegal hunting continues. Northern populations rise and fall in cycles along with prey populations. The species adapts well to habitat change as long as nest sites are available. In the Pacific Northwest they have expanded into open land recently created by logging. Because of their prowess as predators, Great Horned Owls can pose a threat to other species of concern, such as Peregrine Falcons and Spotted Owls. Owls are sometimes poisoned by pesticides and other toxic substances that have accumulated in their prey.

Credits

Range Map Help

Great Horned Owl Range Map
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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.