An unmistakable species, the great horned owl is one of North America’s largest and heaviest owls, with clearly visible ear tufts on each side of the head. They are also among the most common and widespread owl species in much of the Americas, although sightings are rather rare due to their nocturnal lifestyle.
Apart from its large body size, prominent ear tufts are perhaps the most noticeable feature of a great horned owl. Its bright lemon-yellow eyes are among the largest of any bird species, and its black bill is not clearly visible beneath bristly facial feathers.
Sometimes known as the ‘tiger owl’ a great horned owl’s face features striped markings with brown, black, and buff streaks and a white bib. Its neck, mottled with chestnut and darker brown, becomes barred towards the breast and onto the belly. Upper wings are dark brown, heavily patterned with cryptic markings that offer good camouflage against tree trunks and branches.
Feet are white, strong, and powerful with dark talons. Different color variations may be seen according to geographical location, with paler birds more common across Mexico and the southwestern US. Darker morphs are found along the Pacific coast.
Females and males have the same coloring and markings, but females are larger, so size is a fairly reliable way of telling individuals apart.
Juveniles are initially covered in a fluffy grayish-white down, which is gradually replaced on the wings and facial disk with darker marked feathers, and within a few weeks, they obtain their full adult plumage shortly after fledging.
Great Horned Owl perched on a tree stump
Juvenile Great Horned Owl in National Park
Large powerful owls, great horned owls are the largest owls in Central and South America but are pipped at the post for the title in North America by both the great gray owl and the snowy owl. Females are larger than males in all aspects.
The heaviest recorded great horned owl weighed 2.5 kg (5.5 lb).
Great Horned Owl in-flight over natural habitat
The identifying call of a great horned owl is a series of between three and eight loud, deep-pitched hoots. The second and third notes are shorter than the others in the series.
Great Horned Owl calling from the trees
The primary prey in a great horned owl’s diet is rabbits and hares, rats, mice, and voles.
Other small and mid-sized mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates are also hunted opportunistically, mostly during the night, although some daytime hunting also occurs. Birds as large as herons and geese are occasionally caught, although mammals account for up to 90 percent of their usual diet.
Male great horned owls bring prey to the nest for the female to then tear into smaller chunks and feed to their young. Voles are a common food choice for hatchlings to be fed.
Great Horned Owl feeding at the nest
Great horned owls are adapted to survive in a diverse range of habitats across North America, including parkland, woodlands, open country, deserts, swamps, and northern coniferous forests near the treeline.
During the breeding season, great horned owls are not present in tundra and treeless plains or grasslands as they depend on the cover of trees and dense brush vegetation.
Widespread across North America, great horned owls are found as far north as the treeline across northern Alaska and Canada, with west and central Alaska and the northwestern Yukon Territories forming the northern limit of their range.
Moving southwards, the species is present throughout the entire United States, Mexico, and northern Central America. In South America, two separate populations exist. One has a relatively rare presence across southern Brazil into Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and parts of northeastern Argentina. In the north, great horned owls are also native to Venezuela, Columbia, and Ecuador.
Great horned owls are widespread throughout North and South America, but the United States has by far the largest population.
States with the highest concentrations of great horned owls include Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Oregon, which have landscapes with dense forests and open woodlands, which are the preferred habitats of great horned owls.
The global population of great horned owls is estimated at up to 5.3 million individuals, and the species is common and widespread across much of its range in North America.
However, sightings remain rare and there is limited research available on many aspects of this species due to their preference to avoid areas with dense human habitation, their nocturnal behavior, and their highly cryptic and well-couflaged markings.
Great Horned Owl foraging on the ground in natural habitat
As the species is so widespread throughout the US, any national park with suitable forested landscapes may offer a fair chance of a sighting, particularly at dusk and during the breeding season.
Yellowstone National Park, in Idaho, and in the Everglades National Park, where great horned owls are regularly spotted over mangrove forests and in the cypress swamps.
Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario all have a well-established year-round presence of great horned owls. Sikome Lake in Fish Creek Provincial Park in Alberta is known for its regular nesting owls.
Great Horned Owl in-flight
Great horned owls hold the longevity record among North American owls, with the oldest known individual reaching 28 years and 7 months.
An injured banded great horned owl, was recovered at 28 years and cared for in captivity where it survived until the age of 34. Another captive example is a female at the San Francisco Zoo who reached an incredible 50 years of age.
Breeding usually occurs for the first time at two years of age although year-old great horned owls have been known to breed successfully.
Due to their position near the very top of the food chain, predation of great horned owls is rare and not frequently observed. Where nests are left unattended, opportunistic predation by crows and ravens may occur, and nestlings that fall from the nest ahead of fledging may also fall victim to foxes, raccoons, or coyotes.
Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, great horned owls and their young are protected against being killed, injured, traded for sale, or taken into captivity unless a particular license exists. Their nest sites and eggs are also protected against being destroyed or damaged. They do not have any additional conservation status.
Great horned owls are rated as a species of least concern, and their populations are considered stable and robust across much of their range. As they have become well adapted to surviving in a diverse range of habitats, they are largely unaffected by changes in land use.
Pair of Great Horned Owls in an oak tree flapping their wings
Great horned owls are not one of nature’s talented nest-builders and instead rely on large platform nests that have been built in tall trees by other birds, particularly corvids, red-tailed hawks, and even squirrels.
Alternatively, cavity nests in tree trunks or snags may be used, as well as ledges, clifftops, and nest boxes, and on rare occasions, young are raised in ground-level nest sites.
One of the first birds to nest each season, on rare occasions great horned owls in Florida may lay eggs as early as November. Elsewhere, eggs are laid between December and May, reaching a peak in January and February.
Incubation is just the female’s job, while the male brings prey to the nest to feed her for the duration, which is between 30 and 37 days.
Great horned owls’ eggs are white in color and rounded in shape. They have no markings on the outer shell and measure around 56 mm (2.2 in) by 4.7 mm (1.9 in). A typical clutch contains between one and four eggs, with two being the most common number.
Pairs remain together during the breeding season, but once young have gained independence, great horned owls are usually solitary, and roost and forage alone. Pairs may remain in the same territory together but do not closely associate until it’s time to breed again the following year.
Long-term pair bonds seem likely, with evidence of pairs reuniting in five subsequent years. However, if one mate dies, then a replacement will usually be found relatively quickly.
Great Horned Owl with young at the nest site
A highly aggressive and powerful owl, the great horned owl has been known to inflict severe injuries on humans as well as on other birds, including members of its own species.
Great horned owls are nocturnal, hunting through the night and finding a suitable roosting site as day breaks. Roosting spots are usually located in woodlands and forests, both in cavities and in the branches of both coniferous and deciduous trees.
Males regularly use the same roosting spot, while during nesting, females roost in the nest chamber with eggs or young.
Great Horned Owl roosting next to a tree trunk
Great horned owls are a sedentary species, breeding and wintering in the same territories. Irruptions may take place from time to time in years of poor prey availability, but these are unpredictable and generally short-term and short-distance.
Great horned owls are native to the US and widespread throughout the entire country except Hawaii. They are nonmigratory and remain in the same territories all year round.
Great Horned Owl taking-off from a wooden post
Bald eagles eclipse great horned owls in length, wingspan, and weight. With a maximum wingspan of 2.44 m (88 in), bald eagles are almost a meter wider than the largest great horned owls. The maximum weight of a bald eagle is 6.3 kg (14 lb), almost three times heavier than the heaviest great horned owls.
The characteristic loud low hooting of a great horned owl serves a number of different purposes, including the establishment of a territory and later protecting that patch, as a communication between mates, and to deter predators or rivals from approaching. Their deep hoots carry across forests and woodlands, alerting wildlife and humans to their presence nearby.
It is not especially advised to attempt to attract great horned owls to a backyard or any location that has frequent human traffic or a chance of disturbing a nesting pair, as they are known to attack people when they feel threatened.
These powerful giant birds of prey are known to nest in tall trees, particularly drawn to a tree with an existing bulky nest platform that they can repurpose as their own. Nest boxes may also prove irresistible if no natural sites are available nearby.
In some cultures, great horned owls are considered to be a lucky omen as they have a spiritual association with good fortune, especially in romantic matters. Some believe they carry messengers from the spirit world, and sightings bring protection and comfort.
Hoot Owl, Tiger Owl
43cm to 64cm
91cm to 153cm
1.2kg to 1.6kg
Arguably the world’s most instantly recognizable owl species (thanks possibly to the “celebrity” of Hedwig in the Harry Potter series), the snowy owl is a powerful and fearsome presence on Arctic tundra landscapes. It preys on lemmings and voles and will also successfully chase and capture much larger mammals and birds.
Despite being one of North America’s tiniest owls, the northern pygmy-owl has a reputation as being one of the most bloodthirsty, fearlessly hunting and carrying off prey up to three times its own size.
A common and widespread owl species across the eastern United States, the eastern screech-owl has adapted to survive in a diverse range of habitats, in both suburban neighborhoods and rural forested landscapes. Seemingly unfazed by human presence (at a distance), eastern screech owls readily roost in nest boxes hung in backyards.
Western screech-owls are a relatively widespread and abundant species in the western regions of North America, found in a range of habitat types from woodlands and suburban parks and gardens with mature tree cover to the arid mesquite landscapes of the Sonoran Desert.
One of North America’s tiniest owl species, flammulated owls are named for the flame-like markings that are present on their faces, back, wings and underparts. Their plumage allows them to blend into their forest habitats and remain elusive and rarely seen.
A small woodland owl native to eastern and south Asia, on two recorded occasions oriental scops-owls have strayed as far as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as vagrant visitors. These long-distance detours are highly unusual and the species is far more likely to be spotted in forested regions of east China.
Great Gray Owl
Unmistakable due to their sheer size, great gray owls are the largest North American owls in terms of size but not the heaviest. This honor goes to the snowy owl, which is on average at least 10 cm shorter in length and more than 1 kg heavier.
Unique among North America’s birds, burrowing owls are the only species on the continent that nest and roost below the ground. Usually, an abandoned prairie dog burrow is used, but occasionally they will excavate their own tunnel that extends deep into the soil.
A small owl, resident in northern taiga landscapes, boreal owls are widespread but are rarely seen due to their favored habitats of dense coniferous and mixed forests, their secretive behavior and their nocturnal hunting habits.
Originally confined to forests and uplands in eastern North America, the barred owl has extended its range into the Pacific Northwest in recent decades and is now widespread across southern Canada. Their well-known ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ call can be heard resounding through woodlands in early spring.
North America’s smallest owl species, elf owls are widespread across the desert landscapes of the US-Mexico borders. Cavities in saguaro cacti are one of their favorite nesting spots, although they are also likely to use abandoned woodpecker hollows in trees, fence posts and utility poles in more urban settings.
Spotted owls are a species of intense conservation concern across North America. Numbers have declined steeply since the increase in logging activities across the Pacific Northwest from the 1970s onwards. Populations have now reached worryingly low levels, with only an estimated 6000 to 15,000 individuals believed to remain in the wild.
The most widespread pygmy-owl species in South America, ferruginous pygmy-owls are tiny reddish-brown owls roughly the same size as an eastern bluebird. Thriving in both desert landscapes of the extreme southern US and in tropical rainforests of South America, they are a mostly diurnal species, hunting for insects and lizards between dawn and dusk.
Northern Hawk Owl
Found in northern regions of North America, northeastern Europe and Siberia, northern hawk owls are unusual among owls for being active during the day rather than the night. The species is also known for its hawklike behavior, flight and body shape.
Mottled owls are native to Central America and much of northern South America. Barely any records exist of the species within the United States although they are present in various regions of Mexico. A nocturnal hunter with a varied diet, the mottled owl preys on small rodents, birds, insects and small reptiles, scanning the forest floor from a perch, waiting for an opportunity to swoop.
A small, noisy owl that thrives in montane forests from Arizona to Nicaragua, the whiskered screech-owl is named for the tufted bristles on its face. A highly nocturnal bird, the first alert to the presence of a whiskered screech-owl is usually hearing its distinctive trilled song resounding through moonlit woodlands.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
One of the smallest owl species of North America, the northern saw-whet owl is common and widespread across coniferous and mixed species forests of Canada and the United States. However, its nocturnal habits and secretive behavior means that sightings remain rare and the species is not particularly well-studied.
One of the world’s least-documented owl species, the stygian owl has a dark plumage and is found in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Vagrant visitors have occasionally been recorded in Texas and Florida, but otherwise it is not usually spotted in much of North America.
The Eurasian Scops Owl is one of the smaller members of the Strigidae family of owls being smaller even than the Little Owl. It is one of the few European owls that leaves its breeding grounds and migrates south during the winter.
The Tawny Owl is a carnivorous night hunter common throughout Europe and western Asia with pockets found within the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It shouldn’t be confused with the Tawny Fish-owl of East Asia, the Tawny-bellied Screech owl of South America nor the Tawny-browed owl found on the eastern side of South America. The tawny owl is also occasionally referred to as the Brown Owl.
Unlike most owls, this medium sized bird is often seen hunting during daylight hours, mainly around dawn and dusk and particularly across farmland and in grassland, marsh and moorland areas.
As well as its distinctive ear tufts, perhaps the most striking feature of a long-eared owl are its piercing bright orange eyes. However, as the UKs most nocturnal owl species, its rare that they are out in daylight hours, so itd be a really rare event to see one with your own eyes.
The Little Owl is the UK’s smallest bird of prey and a fascinating species to observe. Introduced over a century ago, these newcomers from the European mainland have become a regular sighting in farmland across much of England.
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