The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), also known as the tiger owl and hoot owl is perhaps one of the most recognizable of the owl species. They are widely distributed across North America. You have likely heard their low, melancholic hooting while sitting on your porch or strolling through the forest at dusk. Perhaps you have even been lucky enough to witness a great horned owl swooping down to catch its prey.
The great horned owl is a powerful predator. They can take on prey larger than themselves, including other birds of prey. The majority of the great horned owl’s diet consists of mammals, ranging from small rodents to skunks, rabbits, or opossums.
These skilled hunters are capable of picking up prey that weighs as much as fifteen pounds! While they weigh only about three pounds. Read on if you are ready to discover more about these fascinating creatures.
Great Horned Owl in flight with hunted rodent
A great horned owl’s favorite food likely consists of what it eats the most - mammals. Mammals, such as mice, rats, rabbits, and ground squirrels, make up the majority of this owl’s diet. They will also eat other birds, including waterfowl, hawks, and smaller owls.
Great horned owls that live in regions near an abundance of water sources will typically eat more amphibians and fish than owls in other regions might. Insects, scorpions, and reptiles are also on the menu to complete the well-balanced diet of this predator.
In winter, the great horned owl certainly has fewer food resources, especially in the colder northern regions of its habitat. These creatures are extremely adaptable, however. They still find what they need to survive.
In colder months, a great horned owl will focus its hunting on mammals that remain active in winter, including small rodents, rabbits, and hares. They may also hunt other birds.
Like most owls, the great horned owl is nocturnal. They typically stay awake through the night, hunting the most at dusk and dawn. That said, an owl will adapt its feeding habitats when not finding enough winter food sources during the usual hunting hours. To ensure they can sustain themselves all winter long, these owls will switch to being active during the day.
Great Horned Owl perched on a post in winter, on the lookout for prey
Great horned owls are excellent hunters with impeccable eyesight and hearing. They often hunt from a perch, such as a branch or a fence post, or while flying low and slow over a field. Occasionally, though, you may see one walking on the ground or even wading into the water to catch prey.
Another characteristic that makes the great horned owl such a masterful hunter is their ability to fly silently. Their wings feature serrated edges that allow the air to pass through without creating the typical swooshing sound you have likely noticed when a hawk or raven flies overhead.
The great horned owl’s wings are also large compared to the size of its body. This allows them to glide slowly and noiselessly through the air while they hunt.
Great Horned Owl in flight
Typically, a great horned owl will hunt at dusk, dawn, and throughout the night. The only season where this habitat may change is in winter. Then, this owl may be seen hunting during the day when the temperature is warmer and their prey more active.
Baby great horned owls will eat whatever their parents feed them. This typically includes mammals, reptiles, and other birds. Occasionally, a parent will feed their young worms, insects, or fish.
Great Horned Owl at nest with two chicks
Unsurprisingly, adult great horned owls do not have that many predators. They are too great a predator themselves. This isn’t to say they have nothing to look out for, though. Occasionally they are attacked by larger birds that are just as fierce - such as golden eagles or goshawks.
Larger mammals, including coyotes, bobcats, and foxes may also kill one if they are caught on the ground injured or wrestling with prey.
On the other hand, great horned owlets are far more vulnerable than adults. They often fall prey to domestic and wild cats, foxes, weasels, skunks, and opossums. The common crow may even go after a great horned owl’s eggs.
Great Horned Owl perched on a tree stump
The great horned owl is always a glorious sight to see. Plus, the low, dulcet tones of their hooting add to the cozy atmosphere of sitting by a fire on a calm winter night. The desire to attract these creatures to your yard is certainly understandable. It is important to note that doing so is not nearly as easy as drawing in songbirds to a feeder, though.
To attract a great horned owl, your property (or the land surrounding your yard) should be expansive, with a mix of forest and open meadows or grassland. They prefer to avoid overly developed areas.
Owls need territories where they can nest and hunt. Hunting often takes place in open spaces, where the owl can swoop in easily on its prey. Nests are built in areas with more cover. Common nesting structures include tree cavities, cliff ledges, or abandoned buildings. These owls will also occasionally use human-built nest boxes, which is something you can try if your property meets the other habitat requirements.
Great Horned Owl launching an attack on prey
There are a few things to consider before you decide to attract great horned owls. It is important to remember that these birds are, first and foremost, skilled predators. They can catch and eat prey that weighs up to fifteen pounds, including domestic cats and dogs.
If you have outdoor cats or small dogs that often roam around your home relatively unattended, attracting great horned owls may not be the best decision. Your pets or small livestock could very easily fall prey to the owl. The presence of a great horned owl may also deter other animal visitors you enjoy seeing, especially those most active at dusk and dawn.
In the end, having a resident great horned owl will not be unfavorable for everyone. You simply must determine whether or not one would be a welcomed neighbor before inviting it to take up residence.
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