Great Horned Owl Information, Photos, Facts & Trivia
Vigilant and resourceful, the owl reminds us that we must have patience to wait for our opportunities, but we must not hesitate to strike when the time is right.
Great Horned Owls (Bobo virginianus) are the most widely distributed owl in both North and South America, and are also known as "Tiger Owls", "Hoot Owls", and "Cat Owls". American Expedition is proud to present Information About Great Horned Owls, Great Horned Owl Facts & Trivia, and Photos of Great Horned Owls, and Owl Watching Tips.
Great Horned Owl Information
Great Horned Owls can be distinguished from other owls by the prominent tufts of feathers on their head (the "horns"), as well as by their barred plumage (which has led to their nickname, the "tiger owl"). There is a variable sized patch of white on the throat of the owl. There can be considerable variation in the shading of the great horned owl's plumage, from red to brown to gray. Additionally, there may be regional variations in coloration of the birds - for example, great horned owls in northern, snowy, sub-arctic ranges are typically more whitish in color, while great horned owls in Central America can be a deep, chocolaty brown.
Great horned owls are heavily built birds, with large heads and broad wings. They can range in length from 17-25 inches, and they have a wingspan of 35-50 inches. An adult will weigh between 1.3 to 5.7 pounds. Great horned owls are the second heaviest owl in North America, coming second only to the Snowy Owl. They are the heaviest extant owl in both Central and South America.
In addition to their appearance, great horned owls have a very distinguishable, low-pitched call - this is where their nickname, "the hoot owl", comes from. A male's call will be lower pitched than a female's call, and a female's call will actually rise in pitch and the end of a call. Nestlings and younger owls may make different, screechy calls that can be confused with sounds made by other species of owls.
Great Horned Owl Facts & Trivia
- Great horned owls live between 10-15 years in the wild if they are not preyed on by another animal. They have been known to live up to 30 years in captivity.
- Great horned owls are very opportunistic birds. They have been known to take over eagle nests before eagles have laid their eggs, forcing the eagles to rebuild elsewhere.
- Owls have a very sensitive auditory system - they are able to hear sounds at frequencies that humans cannot, which helps them to detect prey.
- The great horned owl's facial disc serves a practical purpose as a type of radar dish, receiving any auditory waves and funneling them to the ears.
- Owls can actually pinpoint the position of their prey, and the direction and speed that it is moving by using the "radar signals" received from their facial disc and determining the difference between what they are hearing in each ear. They use this information to build a mental image of their surroundings. They are known to be able to detect a difference of as little as .00003 seconds between the left and right ears, and use this information to pinpoint where their prey will be by the time they have flown to meet it.
- The great horned owl's reputation as a silent killer is very well deserved. They remain silent while hunting, preferring to use their excellent listening skills to scope in on prey.Owls have loose, soft feathers that do not make much, if any, noise when are swooping down to strike at their prey.
- Because owls do not make much sound while in flight, they are still able to listen to their prey in mid-air. If the prey moves, they can adjust their flight plan accordingly.
- Great horned owls have very specialized brains, and studies have shown that they have more neurons in the medulla, an area of the brain associated with hearing.
- Great horned owls use their hooting calls to find mates. Male owls will begin hooting to try to call a female in the fall, and continue to hoot into the early winter.
- The great horned owl's hoot can travel long distances, and owl courtship involves much hooting before the owls decide to meet.
- Once great horned owls have found a mate, they generally stay in a territory of .25-5 square miles.
- If food is scarce in the winter, owls have been known to temporarily leave their territories for areas with more prey.
- Great horned owls are generally considered useful by humans because they eat a lot of nuisance animals like rodents.
Great Horned Owl Habitat
Great horned owls are extremely adaptable - they can live in deserts as well as rain forests, prairies as well as mountains, and they are adaptable to deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests. They can be found in many climates, from subarctic regions in the north to hot, arid deserts in North America, though they are less common in more harsh living conditions. Additionally, they have been known to take up residence in some urban areas, though in general they prefer settings without humans around.
Great horned owls prefer areas with open space where they can spot prey, like prairies, as well as wooded areas, where they can find shelter and trees to roost in. Younger great horned owls may move freely from location to location in search for territories with ample prey and for mates, but once they have matured and have found a mating partner, great horned owls become permanent residents of their range.
Great horned owls have a very large range that extends from northern, subarctic North America down to the southernmost tip of South America. This makes them the most widely distributed owl in the Americas, even though they do not inhabit every region in the Americas.
Owl Watching Tips
- You won't have much luck trying to spot owls in the daytime, because they are nocturnal. The best time to search for great horned owls is just after dusk, when they are first becoming active.
- Before going out into the dark to spot owls, do some reconnaissance during the daytime to become familiar with the area where you will be attempting to watch owls, and look for places where they may be look to find prey. Wooded areas that overlook fields full of mice and other rodents may be especially fruitful.
- If you are going to look for owls in the dark, arrive at your observation point before sunset to give your eyes time to gradually adjust to darkness.
- Dress appropriately for owl watching. Wear dark colors that do not make much noise when you move.
- Try not to move too much while owl watching. Stay in a single location.
- If you find a suspected nest site, do not watch too closely. Owls are very wary of humans and you may disturb their nesting patterns. If you get too close to a nest by accident, be very careful and retreat quietly. Owls may actually attack you if they find you too close to their nests.
- Owls often take over old nests built by other large birds. Look for nests made by eagles, hawks, crows, and ravens, because these nests make ideal homes for great horned owls.
- Owls are very defensive of their territory and will respond when they hear a call of an intruder. With a quality speaker and a recording of a great horned owl's call, you may be able to trick the owl into investigating the sound. You can also learn to make the owl's call yourself.
- In addition to making or playing the sounds of an owl, owls will also respond to the sounds of their prey. The sounds of a rabbit or small bird in distress can be used to attract owls.
- Be patient and persevere, but do not stay out if it is too cold or if you are getting tired.
The great horned owl's plumage helps to camouflage it, making it very difficult to spot.
Great horned owls make very little sound while in flight. This helps them to listen to their prey and adjust their flight pattern according to their prey's movement.
The plumage of the great horned owl may vary from region to region and owl to owl. They all do have tufts of feathers on their heads ("the horns") and the diagonal striping across their body which has lead to one of their nicknames, the "tiger owl".
Owlets stay in the nest for about 45 days, and then begin the process of learning to fly. It usually takes about a month and a half for them to get the hang of flying, and they will stay with their parents for a period of about 5 months, after which they leave to find a territory of their own.
A great horned owl's diet may consist of mice, frogs, insects, squirrels, skunks, and small birds. They have also been known to prey on house cats.
Owls may actually attack you if they find you too close to their nests.
If you go out owl watching, wear dark colors that do not make much noise when you move.
Great horned owls are extremely adaptable - they can live in deserts as well as rain forests, praries as well as mountains, and they are adaptable to deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests.
The great horned owl's hoot can travel long distances, and owl courtship involves much hooting before the owls decide to meet.
The talons of a great horned owl are incredibly sharp and very strong.
Great horned owls can fly at a speed of up to 40 miles an hour.