Be Your Own Birder

Discover the Great Horned Owl

Few raptors are as great as the great horned owl. These owls are fierce and fabulous, and while they’re easily recognized even by non-birders, how much do you really know about the great horned owl?

Great Horned Owl - Photo by Stephane Tardif
Great Horned Owl – Photo by Stephane Tardif

Great Horned Owl Fun Facts

  • The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is one of the most widespread owls in the Western Hemisphere, and therefore goes by many names. In different areas, these owls are called hoot owls, tiger owls, flying tigers, cat owls, and horn owls.
  • The characteristic “horns” of the great horned owl aren’t horns at all, and they aren’t ears either. These are specialized feather tufts called “plumicorns” and the bird uses them to express aggression or threat posturing, and the plumicorns may also be useful for camouflage.
  • Great horned owls are one of the most aggressive raptors and prey on a wide variety of small- and medium-sized mammals, including skunks, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, and even other birds such as falcons, ospreys, and other owls. These owls also eat smaller prey, including scorpions, mice, voles, shrews, and frogs.
  • It is true that great horned owls may attack small pets, including small breeds of cats and dogs. Pets aren’t their preferred prey, but a hungry owl won’t turn down the opportunity for any meal, particularly in suburban habitats where other prey can be scarce.
  • A great horned owl’s plumage varies based on its geographic location. Northern individuals and desert owls are often paler, while those in deeply forested regions tend to be darker to blend in with shadowy habitats.
  • The grip of a great horned owl can exert up to 28 pounds of pressure – enough to eviscerate small prey or cause severe injuries to larger animals.
  • These owls have long lives and the average lifespan in the wild is 13-15 years. In captivity, great horned owls can live for more than 35 years.
  • Great horned owls are one of the earliest nesting birds in North America, beginning their courtship as early as October and nesting through the winter. In southern areas, eggs may be laid as early as November.
  • There is so much variation among great horned owls that more than 20 subspecies have been noted, but the actual number of subspecies is not universally accepted and the divisions vary based on which organization or classification group is consulted.
  • The great horned owl is the official provincial bird of Alberta, Canada.
Great Horned Owlets – Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

Add the Great Horned Owl to Your Life List

Great horned owls are one of the easiest owls to see, thanks to their broad distribution, adaptability to various habitats, and large size for easy spotting. Because these birds stay in the same range year-round and generally return to the same roosting and nesting spots, learning where they have been seen frequently is a good way to plan an owling trip to see great horned owls. They tend to be most active in twilight and dusky periods, but will hunt all night long. If a mated pair has a large brood and prey may be scarce, these owls can also be actively hunting during the day, making sightings even easier.

Learn More About the Great Horned Owl

Try these great resources to learn even more about great horned owls…

Great Horned Owl Eyes – Photo by Bob Denaro

One thought on “Discover the Great Horned Owl

  1. sharonkay ford

    Really enjoyed reading those facts. Got up close and personal with one last week on Lake Murray. First time I have ever seen one in person. It was so stealth….and beautiful.

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