Great Horned Owl

( Photo Gallery below )

Our first introduction to the Great Horned Owl was right in our own neighborhood.  We heard the loud cawing of excited crows and went out the front door to see what was happening.  There were about 50 crows calling and harassing an owl which was sitting in a tree on the parkway. Great Horned Owl|Santa Maria, CA   A crow would dive bomb the owl and then would peel off as another crow took its place.  What a racket they made! (We later learned that Great Horned Owls are major predators of crows and their nestlings.)  The whole neighborhood stood on the street and watched the show! Now then, the owl wasn’t too excited; it blinked a couple of times and just fluffed up its feathers!


The Great Horned Owl is about 22″ tall with a large, broad body and a big head.  Its most notable feature is its “horns” which are really just tufts of feathers and not actual ears or horns. It can raise and lower its “horns” depending on its mood. This owl has large yellow eyes on a rusty-brown facial disk. This disk acts as a dish to funnel sound to the ear openings which are located under the facial disk.  The legs and feet are feathered. A Great Horned Owl is gray-brown above with horizontal bars and streaks, and is white, brown, and gray below.  It has a white collar, chin and throat.  Both sexes are similar, but the female is larger and has more brown on it than the male.  There are many subspecies of this owl which vary in color and darkness depending on the area of the country.

Range and Habitat

The Great Horned Owl is native to North, Central and South America.  It is found from the sub arctic to Argentina; it is our most widely distributed owl.  It has a variety of habitats, from urban areas to the forest, the desert, swamps, rainforests, and even the sub arctic.


You might have trouble finding a Great Horned Owl, first because its coloration blends perfectly into its surroundings, and second because it rests quietly in trees during the day.  Night time, however, is a different story!  Its binocular vision allows it to see in low-light conditions and makes it into a versatile hunter.  It usually waits patiently on a tree branch and then swoops down to catch its prey.  It might glide slowly above the ground, scavenge road kills, or walk right into chicken coops! Great Horned Owls have even been seen wading into creeks to catch frogs.  The eyes of this owl are nearly as large as a human’s, but don’t move up and down or side to side in their sockets.  Instead the owl has to turn its head to look in another direction.  It can turn its head 270 degrees without moving its body!  Along with keen vision, this owl has good hearing and a poor sense of smell.  That might explain how it could eat a skunk!  The Great Horned Owl can take prey up to 2-3 times larger than itself! It will eat fish, large insects, rodents, squirrels, snakes, frogs, other birds and owls, geese, rabbits, and maybe even a cat or a dog.  It has an amazing 500 pounds of pressure in its sharp talons. With four toes on each foot, it can rotate two toes in front and two in back which is handy for catching prey.  Small prey is simply swallowed, but larger prey is torn apart to swallow.  You might find regurgitated undigested parts of its prey, such as bones and fur, in owl pellets.  In the winter time, food that can’t be eaten is left to freeze; the food is later thawed out with the owl’s own body heat.

The Great Horned Owl has a wing span of about 4 feet.  Loosely packed feathers and fringe on the ends of the feathers help to make the owl silent as it flies.  This way it can sneak up on its prey and avoid detection.  Young owls hiss or screech but adults have a rhythmic low pitched “hoo-hoo-ho-hoo” of about 4-7 notes.  The call is deeper in sound than the Mourning Dove and carries a long distance.   The female has a higher pitched call than the male. Most of the calling can be heard from dusk to around mid-night, and again just before dawn.

Great Horned Owls have territories of about 2.5 square miles. They are permanent residents and don’t migrate as a rule, except when there is a lack of food.  Juvenile owls and unmated owls will travel, however, in search of company and their own territories. The adults have no enemies but may be killed in confrontations with other Great Horned Owls, eagles, Northern Groshawks, and Peregrine Falcons.  They can live up to 13 years.  One owl is known to have lived a record 29 years in captivity.

Breeding and Nesting

Great Horned Owls mate for life, but they will stay with their mate only during breeding season.  They need a territory of around 2.5 acres.  Studies have shown that the same pair may retain their territories for as long as eight years.  The mating ritual begins in October with the pair hooting at each other. They bow to each other with dropped wings, rub bills and preen.  They mate by December and often use nests from other large birds. They may also use cavities in trees, cliffs, buildings, etc.  The female lays 1-5 eggs and incubates the eggs for about 30-37 days. The male feeds the female and protects the nest by attacking intruders.   After the young hatch they are fed by both parents are brooded for another 2 weeks.  The young are very active and will venture out onto the tree limbs, but remain close by in order to be fed.  They fledge at 45-55 days. Young birds will not mate until they are about 2 years of age.

Photo Gallery Great Horned Owl

-Click to enlarge-