Great Horned Owls

Large, Nocturnal Predators

Great horned owl
Paul Bruch/Getty Images

Great horned owls are a large species of true owls that inhabit many parts of North and South America. These nocturnal avian hunters take a wide range of prey including mammals, other birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Great horned owls were first described in 1788 by Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist who published the 13th edition of Systema Naturae by Carolus Linnaeus. That edition included a description of the great horned owl and gave it the scientific name Bubo virginianus which reflected the fact that the species was first observed in the Virginia colonies.

Interesting Facts About Great Horned Owls

Great horned owls, sometimes called hoot owls, range in length from 17 to 25 inches, and have a wingspan of up to five feet. They are the second heaviest owl in North America (after the Snowy Owl), and they are powerful hunters that can grip and crush a full-grown rabbit. There's a good chance that you've heard the hoo-hoo-hoo call of the great horned owl if you've spent any time in the woods at night; young great horned owls will hiss or screech, especially when disturbed or frightened. In addition:

  • Great horned owls eat a range of prey. Like all owls, great horned owls are fascinating carnivores that eat their prey whole and then regurgitate "pellets" containing fur and bones. Usually active at night, they are also sometimes spotted during the late afternoon or during the hours around dawn. These unique and beautiful birds prefer to eat rabbits and hares but will settle for any small mammal, bird, reptile, or amphibian that comes within its reach. They are the only animal that feeds on skunks; they also hunt birds such as American crows, peregrine falcon nestlings, and osprey nestlings.
  • Great horned owls occupy the most extensive range of any owl species. The range of great horned owls includes most parts of North and South America. It stretches from the northern boreal forests of Alaska and Canada, southward throughout the United States and Mexico, into Northern parts of South America and throughout Patagonia.
  • Great horned owls have prominent ear tufts atop their head. Great horned owls are one of several owl species that possess ear tufts. Scientists disagree as to the function of these ear tufts. Some suggest that the ear tufts serve as camouflage by breaking the contour of the owl's head. Others suggest that the tufts serve some role in communication or recognition, enabling the owls to convey some kind of signals to one another. Experts agree though, that the ear tufts play no role in hearing.
  • Great horned owls are long-lived birds. Great horned owls are known to live as long as 38 years in captivity. In the wild, great horned owls live up to 13 years of age. In the wild, great horned owls are most often killed by man, by shooting, trapping, collision with high-tension wires or car strikes. Great horned owls have few natural predators, they are occasionally killed by members of their own species or by northern goshawks, a species that often battles with the owls for available nesting sites.
  • Great horned owls live in a wide variety of habitats. Great horned owls inhabit boreal forests in the northernmost parts of their range. They prefer open and secondary-growth woodlands and will also live in agricultural areas and suburban settings.
  • Great horned owls nest during the months of January and February. During mating season, male and female great horned owls hoot back and forth to each other. Their mating rituals include bowing to each other and rubbing bills. When ready to nest, they do not build their own nest but instead seek out existing sites such as the nests of other birds, squirrel nests, tree holes, crevices in rocks and nooks in buildings.
  • Great horned owls are cryptically colored. Because they remain largely inactive during the day, great horned owls are cryptically colored so they blend with their surroundings while they rest. They have a rust-brown colored facial disk and white feathers on their chin and throat. Their body is a mottled grey and brown color above and barred on the belly.