Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Details About The Great Horned Owl

  • General Information

    Great Horned Owls are the largest common owl in the eastern United States. They are dark brown, with a squared off head, gray mottled and streaked below, setting off the stark white throat patch. They also have prominent widely spaced ear tufts and large yellow eyes.

    Latin Name: Bubo virginianus
    Class: Aves
    Order: Strigiformes
    Family: Strigidae
    Length: 18-26 inches
    Weight: 3-4 pounds
    Wingspan: 49-62 inches
    Common Name: Hoot Owl, Big Cat Owl, Silent Tiger
    Etymology: bubo (Latin) - "horned or hooting owl"; virginianus (Latin) - "from Virginia," where the first specimen was collected

  • Flight, Voice & Habitat

    Fringing on plumage and soft feathers on feet are essential for the Great Horned Owls' silent flight. They have great power, sometimes "bullying" their way through thick cover to get at prey.

    The Great Horned Owl is one of a few North American owl species that hoots. Whooo-whooo-whooooooo-who-who. Male vocalizations are more elaborate, more prolonged, richer, deeper, and more mellow than those of the female.

    A wide variety of terrain is used, but densely forested regions are preferred. Forests can be conifer, hardwood, or mixed. For roosting purposes, Great Horned Owls prefer evergreens. They are often associated with Red-tailed Hawks and are highly territorial. Great Horned Owls are solitary except during mating season. Mated pairs may occupy territories year-round and long-term. Although members of a pair may remain within the same territory throughout the year, usually they roost close together only before egg-laying, and males roost close to the nest only until young fledge.

  • Nesting

    Like most owls, Great Horned Owls do not make their own nests. They generally use an abandoned Red-tailed Hawk's nest at a height of 40-70 feet. These owls have a wider range of nest sites than any other bird in the Americas and will sometimes nest in hollows in trees, on cliffs or artificial platforms, and will lay eggs on the ground. Most nests are used for only one season, and a lack of nest maintenance often causes the nests to deteriorate. Great Horned Owls may start nesting as early as late November. Normally, there are two white to slightly dusty white roundly oval eggs. Incubation, by the female only, can be as short as 30 days, as long as 35. Females are able to maintain their eggs at incubating temperature near 37°C even when ambient temperature is more than 70°C colder. Young Great Horned Owls begin branching at 5 weeks, when they are almost the size of their parents. However, they are not efficient fliers until 9-10 weeks.

  • Distribution

    Great Horned Owls are found from southern Canada south, throughout the lower 48 States and into Central and South America. They have the most extensive range, widest prey base, and most variable nesting sites of any American owl.

  • Food

    Great Horned Owls are perch and pounce hunters. They dive down with wings folded and snatch prey. Their prey is usually killed instantly when grasped by their large talons. These owls will also walk on the ground to capture small prey or wade into water to snatch a frog or fish. Great Horned Owl prey averages 75% mammals - rabbits, hares and also rodents, squirrels, skunks, raccoons, shrews, armadillos and bats. Prey is only 6% birds; they will eat all other owls except snowy owls (birds are plucked before eating). Great Horned Owls tend to select the largest available prey because smaller prey costs more energy than it benefits in food. They are considered nocturnal but often hunt during the day when food requirements are difficult to meet. They eat mostly small mammals (mice, squirrels, etc.), but will also take birds, fish and reptiles. Their only preference seems to be for the largest available prey.

  • Current Resident Birds

    Betbait, a female Great Horned Owl, has served for many years as a surrogate mother to orphans from the Jim Arthur Raptor Medical Center since her arrival in 1985 from Concord, NC. Over the years, she has been a surrogate for over 200 Great Horned Owl chicks! She is retired from public life and now is a full-time surrogate living in the orphan enclosure on the Rehabilitation Trail.

    Harmony, a female Great Horned Owl, is a recent resident of Carolina Raptor Center, coming in 2014 from nearby Concord, NC. Harmony is named because of her role as mediator in the Great Horned Owl enclosure. She and Boo Radley are getting along on the Raptor Trail.

    Great Horned Owl Dumbledore was named for the greatest wizard of all time -- Albus Dumbledore -- of Harry Potter fame. A flight captain in Carolina Raptor Center's summer flight show, Dumbledore came to Carolina Raptor Center in 2003 from Pender County, NC.

    Mathilda, the Great Horned Owl, is a long-time member of the education team as one of our animal ambassadors. She has been with Carolina Raptor Center since 2000, coming from Morganton, NC.

    Atticus the Great Horned Owl has been part of education team since his arrival in 2005. He is named after Atticus Finch from the book To Kill a Mockingbird.

  • Fun Facts & Other Interesting Information

    Great Horned Owls will eat almost anything, including skunks and rats, other raptors like osprey, falcons and other owls. Picky eaters and vegetarians need not apply.

    Many warrior-based tribes of Native Americans admired the Great Horned Owl for their “strength, courage and beauty”.