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Facts About Great Horned Owls

Updated on February 21, 2017

The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is the most common owl in North and South America. In fact, the great horned owl was officially named when the Virginia colonists frequently saw this magnificent bird around their colonies. Since then this bird of prey has been known to others as hoot owls, cat owls, winged tiger, night tiger, and flying bobcat.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Strigiformes

Family: Strigidae

Genus: Bubo

Species: B. virginianus

Biomial name: Bubo virginianus


The first published description of the great horned owl was published by Johann Gmelin in 1788. It was given the name great horned owl due to the tufts of feathers atop their head that resemble horns. Some call the placement of these feathers "ear tufts" when actually they have nothing to do with hearing at all.

The great horned owl is the second largest owl in North and South America. Its body can be measured between 18 and 25 inches (46 -63cm) and have a wingspan of 3 feet to almost 5 feet. Many of these owls weigh between 2 and 5.5 pounds. Females, however, are larger than male by 10%-20%.

Most great horned owls are reddish-brown and gray, however, some are black and white. The underside of their wings is light in color with dark stripes. There is a white band of feathers on their upper breast. They have dark bills, short tails, and large feet. Feathers cover their feet right down to their powerful talons.

They have big heads with large yellow-orange eyes. Their eyes are bordered, in many cases, by an orange facial disc. Contrary to popular belief, these owls cannot turn their heads all the way around. In fact, they can only turn their head 180 degrees.

Their ears are offset, one higher and larger than the other, giving them better depth perception. For example, humans actually hear either left or right. These owls can hear not only left and right, but up and down as well.


Found in North and South America, great horned owls are very adaptable. They can be found in dense forests, cities, tropical rainforests, deserts, and even the tundra areas. Many times, their coloring depends upon what habitat they live in. Lighter colored owls live in snowy areas and the desert while the darker owls will live in the forest area, and cities. Generally, these owls do not migrate due to the fact that they have thick feathers that keep them warm throughout the winter.


The great horned owl is one of the few creatures that will actually eat skunks. Aside from skunks, their diet is primary rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, falcons, and other owls. They have been seen walking on the ground in search of smaller game such as small rodents, reptiles, and amphibians. These owls are also capable of wading through water in order to catch fish and frogs. They have also been known to prey upon domestic cats and dogs in suburban areas.

Their hunting skills are what makes this owl one of the fiercest predatory birds. Nocturnal by nature, they have keen eyes and precise hearing. Once their prey is in sight, they have been seen in a swift aerial assault killing their prey instantly with their powerful talons. They are known to carry prey that weighs two to three times their own weight.

These owls have an amazing digestion process. They have been known to swallow prey whole only to later regurgitate pellets made up of fur, bone, and other unneeded parts.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Great Horned Owl with owletsImmature Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl with owlets
Great Horned Owl with owlets
Immature Great Horned Owl
Immature Great Horned Owl

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size : 1–5 eggs

Egg Length : about 2 inches

Egg Width : about 2 inches

Incubation Period : 26 - 35 days

Nestling Period : 6 - 10 weeks

Egg Description : almost spherical, off-white, with rough surface texture

Condition at Hatching : eyes closed, pink skin with white down feathers on the upper part and totally dependent upon parents.


Nesting season is typically January and February. Great horned owls are typically solitary except during nesting season. When it is time to breed, the male will call out to a female. When he finds a female he will land close and begin a dance ritual. They will both bow to each other with dropped wings followed by mutual bill rubbing and grooming each other.

Great horned owls will take over other birds and animals nests for nesting. Many of these nests include those made by hawks, herons, crows, and even squirrel nests. They will also nest in witch's broom which is a disease that affects trees. It is a mass of shoots growing from one spot that resembles a bird's nest. The great horned owl is commonly known to make their residence in tree holes, stumps, and caves. They have also been known to take over nests in abandoned buildings as well.

These owls will have anywhere from one to five eggs at a time. However, two eggs are the average number of eggs they lay. The eggs take approximately twenty-six to thirty-five days to incubate. Both the female and the male will care for the eggs. The males will often be the one to go out hunting for food. Great horned owls are very protective of their eggs and owlets. They have even been known to attack humans who get too close. When these owls attack, they attack to kill. They will, however, stop attacking if the intruder is driven away from their territory.

Once the owlets are born they are helpless and covered with white down feathers. The parents will continue to brood over the owlets for another two weeks for warmth and protection. At 6-7 weeks, the owlets will start roaming outside the nest. They don't usually go far because they are unable to fly until they are 9-10 weeks old. The parents will continue to feed their offspring for a few weeks after they have taken flight.

Most owlets will stay close to the family for the summer. In the fall, immature owls will leave their parents' territory traveling as far as 150 miles (250km). However, some offspring return home up to 5 months later begging for food. Adults will stay near their breeding ground all year round. In fact, they are very territorial and will maintain their territory for up to eight years. Territories can range in size up to one square mile.


Because of their nocturnal nature, they are heard more frequently right after sunset or just before dawn. They generally will be recognized by a "Hoo-Hoo-Hoo" sound. Male great horned owls with have a call that is lower and softer then the female's. The juvenile great horned owls will actually make more of a screeching sound compared to the adult's hooting.


Great horned owls do not have any known predators however they do have a few enemies. Although they have a life span of 29-38 years in captivity, they are only known to live up to 13 years in the wild. This could be due to their natural enemies. The main enemy to the great horned owl is humans. Many times these owls die due to poisoning, shootings, being hit by a vehicle, electrocution, and traps.

Aside from humans, they have other natural enemies. Although they mate for life, they generally do not get along with other great horned owls. Many fight over territory and nesting grounds. Most other enemies such as the North goshawks and peregrine falcons are due to fighting for nests.

Another annoyance for the great horned owls is crows. Many times the owl will fall victim to the harassment of these crows by mobs with their loud cawing. It is speculated that the crows are trying to run the owls off because they are known to steal their nests and even know for making a meal of the crows.

Although the great horned owl is a magnificent creature, it is well advised to keep your distance. They are very powerful birds and extremely territorial, therefore they aren't a bird to play around with. Because their talons are razor sharp, they could land you or a family member in the hospital if they feel threatened.

© 2014 L Sarhan


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    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I will give you an awesome and up for this. Your research is well done, and your facts are correct. Owlets have an interim stage when they are called branchers. They will climb up and down the branches before they go out on their own.


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