Great Horned Owl
Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
The great horned owl is able to hunt an extensive array of prey, including animals that are larger and heavier than it is itself. The talons of these fierce hunters can hold up to 30 pounds before their grip on an object fails.
The great horned owl is the most common species of owl in both North and South America, and it is easily recognized by the two feather tufts on top of its head. Because the places they call home range anywhere from suburbia to densely forested areas, it’s very likely that you have one living nearby! This owl is very vocal, so your ears are the best means to locate them. Listen for their calls (a deep “hoo-hoo hoooooo hoo-hoo”) during the winter months; most calling starts around dusk, goes on until about midnight, and then happens again before dawn.
STATUS: Great horned owls are listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to their large habitation range and strong, steady population.
HABITAT: These owls can be found anywhere in the Western hemisphere– from the northern tree-line of Canada to the southern tip of Patagonia, Argentina. Great horned owls are tremendously adaptive and will take any nesting site they can find (including the abandoned nests of other large birds) within the range of wooded areas such as forests, shrub-land, swamps, rocky areas, farmland, and urban areas.
DIET: Among the wide array of small to medium-sized animals (mammals [like mice, voles, and rabbits], birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and insects) that the great horned owl will eat is a surprising menu addition: skunk. Because they don’t have a developed sense of smell and can take down prey that is two to three times heavier than themselves, great horned owls are one of the only predators that will bring home a skunk for dinner. They hunt from a perch, while flying low over the ground, walking on the ground, or wading into water.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Great horned owls are medium to large predatory birds, with a body size of 20-23 inches and weighing two to three and a half pounds. The great horned owl’s eyes don’t move—instead of moving his eyes, like humans do, he moves his head. All great horned owls share sharp, predatory beaks and talons, orange-yellow eyes, streaks of darker feathers on their undersides, white chins and throats mottled with gray, and, of course, the recognizable feather tufts on top of their heads. Generally speaking, the body and wings of great horned owls range from a reddish brown to grey-brown with dark mottling, and their facial disks are a rusty buff color. Their large feet are feathered to their toes, and as most birds of prey, the females are slightly larger than the males. Typically, owls that live in the northern regions will be paler than those in the south.
The most apparent characteristic of the great horned owl is its “horns” or “ears.” However, these apparent protrusions are nothing more than erect tufts of feathers called plumicorns, and they have no role in hearing at all. The purpose of the horns is debated; some say that they are daytime camouflage to blend into the trees, and others think that they are used for behavioral signals.