Be Your Own Birder

Bird of the Week: Great Horned Owl

This week we finish up our series of autumn-themed birds with none other than the great horned owl, a bird that suits autumn in so many ways and is so characteristic of the season, not only in its colors, but in its associations with Halloween celebrations. What better bird to honor and study this week!

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl – Photo by Stephane Tardif

Name: Great Horned Owl
Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
Scientific Family: Strigidae (Typical Owls)

Habitat: These widespread and adaptable owls can be found not only in forests and forest edges, but also in agricultural areas, swamps, wetlands, jungles, orchards and even open areas such as tundras and deserts that are bordered by suitable woodlands. They are also regularly seen in both urban and suburban areas where suitable nesting sites and abundant prey are found.

Range: These are New World owls, found throughout North and South America from Alaska and Canada to Mexico, Central America and as far south as southern Brazil and northern Argentina. They are missing, however, from the densest tropical regions of the Panama isthmus and the Amazon basin, as well as from the barren northern Arctic tundra. As a non-migratory species, they stay in their range year-round.

Like all owls, great horned owls are heavily camouflaged in late autumn colors. Their plumage is shades of brown, tan, buff, beige, black, gray and white, but it varies strongly in different areas with owls in northern areas and deserts being quite light, even whitish overall, while owls in more densely vegetated areas are much darker and richer in coloration. The markings remain the same, however, with fine horizontal barring on the underparts, with thicker blotches on the upper breast contrasting with a white throat. The upperparts are heavily mottled, and the tail likewise is mottled above and barred below. The oval-shaped facial disk is framed in black that contrasts with the paler center of the face, and the yellow eyes with their dark pupils stand out with a baleful glare. The bill is dark, and the head is distinct with tall ear tufts set broadly apart. The ear tufts, however, can be moved according to the owl’s mood, and may stand boldly upright, be flattened against the head, or any position in between. The legs, when they’re not tucked into the body, are covered with small pale feathers, but the large black talons stand out as formidable weapons.

In addition to their colors, great horned owls – like all owls – are popular symbols of Halloween. Their nocturnal habits, eerie deep hooting, silent flight and staring eyes are all great to associate with this spooky holiday.

I’ve been fortunate to see these owls several times and in several situations. My lifer great horned owl was on a field trip to Antelope Island in northern Utah, in the Great Salt Lake – no more aptly named place to see a great horned owl! The bird was lazily perched in a stand of trees adjacent to a fine open field for hunting, and was unconcerned with the presence of a group of curious birders. We were whispering and doing all we thought necessary to not disturb the bird, but not remembering the keen senses owls have until it gave a hefty sigh and turned right toward us as if to say “enough already, just get on with it!”

I’ve also had wonderful experiences with these owls in captivity, there being a pair of grumpy great horned owls in residence at Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City. On our very first visit to that facility years ago, my husband had the misfortune to stumble off the path next to their exhibit, and one of the owls never forgave him – for years after, whenever we’d visit, that same owl would clack its bill and glare menacingly whenever my husband came to the exhibit.

I haven’t had the fortune to see these large and amazing birds yet in Florida, though I know they’re around. Wouldn’t it be a treat to see one for Halloween this week? And what a wonderful way to wrap up our month of autumn birds… Whoooo’s with me?

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