The great horned owl is named for the large, horn like tufts of feathers on the head which look like ears. These tufts are known as ‘plumicorns’ and it is believed they are used to communicate with other owls.
Across their back the feathers are colored a mottled brown color. This coloration allows them to camouflage with the bark on a tree trunk. Their color is variable across the range from lighter to darker. On the underside they are white with brown or black bars running horizontally across the body. On the throat is a white spot.
A range of features help them to hunt their prey items. These include a sharp, hooked bill which is colored black and powerful talons which are sharp to help grasp prey.
Their eye is large and colored pale yellow with a black pupil. The eyes are forward facing giving them binocular vision.
Great horned owls are the largest owl species found in North America. Their body measures 50-60cm (20-23.5in) long and their weight Is between 675 and 2,500g (1.5-5.5lbs). They have a wingspan between 1 and 1.5m (3.3 and 4.8ft) across. Females are slightly larger than males.
The great horned owl is a carnivore. Their varied diet includes small mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish, crustaceans and birds. They may prey upon other owl species. Food can be caught in the water or in the air along with on the ground.
Food as large as a skunk or porcupine can be eaten. They are able to carry prey items which weigh as much as they do.
Small prey items are swallowed whole while larger prey items will be torn in to chunks. When swallowing food whole some parts are indigestible including the bones, teeth, claws, and fur or feathers. These items are regurgitated as a pellet which is covered in fur or feathers.
Wild 13 years
Captive 20 years
Record 28 years
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Great horned owls are found across the Americas. Here they can be found in the following countries – Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Bermuda, El Salvador, Falkland Islands, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Suriname, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Due to their large range they can be found in a range of habitats. These include forest, savanna, shrubland, inland cliff, mountain peaks, swamps, marshes and deserts. In some parts of their range they live in urban areas alongside humans.
Breeding begins in February when pairs will court one another. Males will perform display flights and bring the female food to court her.
Nesting takes place in a tree hollow, they may make use of the abandoned nest of another bird or on a cliff edge.
They rarely add additional material to the nest, if they do it is typically some feathers. In to the nest the female will deposit 2-6 eggs. The number of eggs laid is influenced by the abundance of food at that time.
Both parents remain together to raise the eggs. The young spend the first 9-10 weeks of their life in the nest. They will remain with the parents till they are able to live on their own.
By two months old the great horned owl has enough feathers to puff itself up so it can look bigger and defend itself.
Sexual maturity is reached between one and three years old.
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The feathers of a great horned owl have soft edges which make their flight silent. This allows them to sneak up on their prey items. These soft feathers also help to insulate them against the cold.
When hunting they will perch in a tree and listen for food. Their facial disk helps to amplify the noise of their prey and they can then glide down to find the prey item using their night vision.
Pairs communicate using a deep ‘whoo, whoo’ noise. Males vocalize year round but females typically only do this during breeding season.
Outside of the breeding season they are solitary.
The great horned owl is nocturnal with activity taking place between dawn and dusk.
While the eyes of the great horned owl do not turn they are able to rotate their head up to 180 degrees.
Predators and Threats
In most parts of their range the great horned owl represents the apex predator with no animals regularly hunting them.
Young are preyed upon by coyotes, foxes and birds such as raptors and crows. Northern raccoons may eat their eggs.
Humans affect their population through shooting, poisoning and collisions with human structures and vehicles.
Great horned owls are nicknamed the ‘tiger of the sky, tiger owl or cat owl.’
By USFWS Mountain-Prairie – Young Great Horned Owl, CC BY 2.0
Public Domain. USFWS.
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