Great Horned Owls

The great horned owl is the most common owl of the Americas, easily recognizable because of the feather tufts on its head. These “plumicorns” resemble horns or, to some, catlike ears.

Great horned owls are adaptable birds and live from the Arctic to South America. They are at home in suburbia as well as in woods and farmlands. Northern populations migrate in winter, but most live permanently in more temperate climes.

Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owls

The birds nest in tree holes, stumps, caves, or in the abandoned nests of other large birds. Monogamous pairs have one to five eggs (two is typical), both the male and female incubate, and the male also hunts for food. Owls are powerful birds and fiercely protective parents. They have even been known to attack humans who wander too close to their young.

Like other owls, these birds have an incredible digestive system. They sometimes swallow their prey whole and later regurgitate pellets composed of bone, fur, and the other unwanted parts of their meal. Owls are efficient nighttime hunters that strike from above, and use their powerful talons to kill and carry animals several times heavier than themselves. Owls prey on a huge variety of creatures, including raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, domestic birds, falcons, and other owls. They regularly eat skunks, and may be the only animal with such an appetite. They sometimes hunt for smaller game by standing or walking along the ground. Owls have even been known to prey upon unlucky cats and dogs.

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.

Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owls

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.

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.

Great horned owl threats

Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owls

Once persecuted for being a pest to humans and agriculture, the great horned owl is now protected throughout its range and hunting is banned, although some illegal shooting still occurs. Currently, its populations do not seem to have been affected by habitat loss, although in the future certain areas may not be able to provide the large home ranges and abundant prey required by this species.

The use of pesticides and rodenticides on agricultural land is known to contaminate the prey species of the great horned owl, which can cause poisoning. Road traffic accidents and collisions with electric wires are also threats to this species.

Great horned owl conservation

As it is a common and widespread species, there are no specific conservation measures currently in place for the great horned owl, although artificial nesting sites are known to encourage its population growth in some areas. The great horned owl is listed on Appendix II of the  Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that any international trade in this species should be carefully controlled.

Ecosystem Roles

Reproduction of great horned owls is heavily dependent upon prey availability. For example, populations increase when numbers of its primary prey the snowshoe hare, Lepus americanus, were highest. When snowshoe hare abundance lowered, so did the number of great horned owls.

Great Horned Owls Baby

Great Horned Owls Baby

Great horned owls are at risk for parasitism, though it is not always lethal. They can be afflicted with avian malaria if bitten by an infected black fly. They change nest locations depending on black fly activity; in the summer when black flies are active, they roost on or near the ground. In the winter, when fly activity is lower, they will return to the canopy areas.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Great horned owls feed on species at many different trophic levels, including many rodent and insect species that are considered pests by humans. They can adapt to ecosystems inhabited by humans and can act as a control to an overabundance of these pests.

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The great horned owl is the most common owl of the Americas, easily recognizable because of the feather tufts on its head. These 'plumicorns' resemble horns or, to some, catlike ears. Great horned owls are adaptable birds and live from the Arctic to South America. They are at home in...
The great horned owl is the most common owl of the Americas, easily recognizable because of the feather tufts on its head. These "plumicorns" resemble horns or, to some, catlike ears. Great horned owls are adaptable birds and live from the Arctic to South America. They are at home in suburbia as well as in woods and farmlands. Northern populations migrate in winter, but most live permanently in more temperate climes. The birds nest in tree holes, stumps, caves, or in the abandoned nests of other large birds. Monogamous pairs have one to five eggs (two is typical), both the male and female incubate, and the male also hunts for food. Owls are powerful birds and fiercely protective parents. They have even been known to attack humans who wander too close to their young. Like other owls, these birds have an incredible digestive system. They sometimes swallow their prey whole and later regurgitate pellets composed of bone, fur, and the other unwanted parts of their meal. Owls are efficient nighttime hunters that strike from above, and use their powerful talons to kill and carry animals several times heavier than themselves. Owls prey on a huge variety of creatures, including raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, domestic birds, falcons, and other owls. They regularly eat skunks, and may be the only animal with such an appetite. They sometimes hunt for smaller game by standing or walking along the ground. Owls have even been known to prey upon unlucky cats and dogs. <h2>Size & Shape</h2> 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. <h2>Color Pattern</h2> 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. <h2>Behavior</h2> 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. <h2>Habitat</h2> 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. <div id="life_coolfacts"> <h2>Cool Facts</h2> <ul> <li>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.</li> <li>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.</li> <li>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.</li> <li>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.</li> <li>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.</li> <li>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.</li> <li>The oldest Great Horned Owl on record was at least 28 years old when it was found in Ohio in 2005.</li> </ul> </div> <h2>Great horned owl threats</h2> Once persecuted for being a pest to humans and agriculture, the great horned owl is now protected throughout its range and hunting is banned, although some illegal shooting still occurs. Currently, its populations do not seem to have been affected by habitat loss, although in the future certain areas may not be able to provide the large home ranges and abundant prey required by this species. The use of pesticides and rodenticides on agricultural land is known to contaminate the prey species of the great horned owl, which can cause poisoning. Road traffic accidents and collisions with electric wires are also threats to this species. <h2>Great horned owl conservation</h2> As it is a common and widespread species, there are no specific conservation measures currently in place for the great horned owl, although artificial nesting sites are known to encourage its population growth in some areas. The great horned owl is listed on Appendix II of the  Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that any international trade in this species should be carefully controlled. <h2>Ecosystem Roles</h2> Reproduction of great horned owls is heavily dependent upon prey availability. For example, populations increase when numbers of its primary prey the snowshoe hare, Lepus americanus, were highest. When snowshoe hare abundance lowered, so did the number of great horned owls. Great horned owls are at risk for parasitism, though it is not always lethal. They can be afflicted with avian malaria if bitten by an infected black fly. They change nest locations depending on black fly activity; in the summer when black flies are active, they roost on or near the ground. In the winter, when fly activity is lower, they will return to the canopy areas. <h2>Economic Importance for Humans: Positive</h2> Great horned owls feed on species at many different trophic levels, including many rodent and insect species that are considered pests by humans. They can adapt to ecosystems inhabited by humans and can act as a control to an overabundance of these pests.