Owls are very mysterious creatures and the great horned owl is no exception. Across all cultures and centuries, they have had that power over our imaginations either as symbols of wisdom or warnings of doom.
Of course, we are aware that most owls are nocturnal and that their nighttime presence is what makes them scary or spooky (i.e. their eyes glowing in the dark and the owls flying silently over creepy churchyards?) But rather than fearing owls, we can appreciate them as helpful predators that help keep the balance in nature by hunting mice, rodents, etc. and other pests.
Classification, Range, Habitat
Great horned owls belong to the genus “eagle owls” or Bubo and the family of “typical owls” or Strigidae. There are 12 different species of Bubo owls worldwide, but the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is the only species of Bubo you can find in the Americas.
Great horned owls live in a wider variety of habitats compared to other owls in North America. They settle in coniferous, deciduous, as well as mixed forests, in woodlands, deserts, swamps, prairies, and even farmlands and urban parks. They need areas with open regions for hunting and a few trees scattered all over for perching.
Great horned owls are big predatory birds with dark gray-brown feathers, buff black outlined facial discs, distinct feathered “ear-tufts”, and white throats patch. Their breasts are tawny-colored with tiny dark bars, and their backs are mottled and darker-colored. They have huge yellow eyes that could appear like flashlights in the night!
Great horned owls consume a tremendously vast variety of prey. Small mammals such as mice, skunks, meadow voles, cottontails, and jackrabbits comprise the majority of their diet, but they will also feed on reptiles, insects, and other birds sometimes as big as geese and herons. It has been identified that the Great horned owl eats about over 250 different species of prey, which is far more compared with any other type of bird in North America.
Being fairly sedentary birds, Great horned owls are mostly in residence year-round throughout their range. For much of the year, they maintain a territory, making a series of 4 to 5 deep “Hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo” hoots” as the male’s territorial song, and the 6 to 8, “Hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hooo-oo, hoo-oo” response hoots of the females. Mated pairs would hoot back and forth as if in a duet.
Although soft, “eagle owl’s” calls are far-reaching and booming. It can drive all other owls (and other predatory birds such as red-tailed hawks) from their territory, and which also influences the designated spots of other diurnal raptors competing with them for prey.
In many areas, indiscriminate shooting, road fatalities, and habitat destruction remain a major threat to the Great horned owls causing their decline or disappearance.
Human beings need predatory birds or “raptors” as these giants help keep the animal populations of the wild in perfect balance. Raptors consume many types of pests that trouble humans such as rats, mice, and the destructive types of insect species, hence controlling disease or damage to crops. Just imagine what our world would be like without the haunting evening calls of the eagle owls!
Great Horned Owls – Fascinating Facts
- Many species of owls have thick feather coverings on their feet and legs to protect them from snake or rat bites.
- Great horned owls are not appalled by the smell of skunks when hunting them. They must have a very poor sense of smell!
More Fun Facts about Great Horned Owls
- Like other types of owls, Great horned owls don’t prefer making their own nests. Rather, they take over other large bird’s old nests, and this includes nests of herons and red-tailed hawks. They may also nest in tree holes or other natural cavities.
- A young owl and its parent do not look the same! For instance, in spectacled owls, adults’ faces are white-colored with dark feather surroundings, while in their chicks, the colors of the faces are reversed!
- Owls typically have reversible outer toes which they can point forwards or backwards depending on the owl’s position. This is to ensure they have a secure hold over their prey.
- Great horned owls are incredibly powerful with their talon grips using over 13,000 grams (28 pounds) of force just to open them!
Details About the GREAT HORNED OWL (Bubo virginianus)
Range: North, Central, and South America (from Alaska through Canada to the tip of South America!)
Habitat: Almost all terrestrial habitats (tropics, Arctics, etc.)
Size: Length: 55 cm (22 inches) in length
Wingspan: 113 cm (45 inches)
Weight: 1.1 to 2.0 kg (2.5 to 4.5 pounds); females are bigger than the males
Life Span: 35+ years in zoos/ captivity.