Great Horned Owl Facts (Bubo virginianus)

great horned owl

The great horned owl, tiger owl, or the hoot owl as it’s sometimes called, (Bubo virginianus) gets its name from the tufts of feathers on its head that make it look like an old-fashioned helmet.

They are the most widely distributed species of owl in the Americas, ranging from Canada to Chile and even down into Panama and Ecuador.

Their diet consists mostly of small mammals, so their main predators are other large birds such as hawks, eagles, falcons, and goshawks. They are nocturnal hunters, usually relying on stealth to capture their prey in complete darkness.

The hoot owl is one of the most recognizable species of owl in the world, primarily due to its large size and tufted ears. Native to the Americas, these birds are found throughout Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and they will even reside in parts of Central America.

Their ability to adapt to human settlement has made them known as an urban owl; in fact, they have taken up residence in some New York City parks as well as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park!

Hoot owl description

great horned owl

The great horned owl is a widespread raptor of forests, suburbia, and deserts in the Americas. It is a powerful predator that has few natural enemies other than humans. Growing to nearly four feet tall with one foot-long wingspan, the great horned owl can weigh anywhere from three to four pounds.

Their feathers are mostly brown but they often have white on their throats and tails as well as barred markings on their chest. These markings help camouflage them in trees. They have large yellow eyes and catlike faces that make them look ferocious even though they do not pose much danger to humans.

Their talons are sharp enough to kill small animals like rats, rabbits, squirrels, mice, or any small mammals up to the size of an opossum.

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Great horned owl scientific name

The scientific name of the great horned owl is Bubo virginianus

Great horned owl habitat

As one of the most widely distributed owl in North America, great horned owls live in a variety of habitats from dense woodlands to open country, forests, and deserts. They can even be found living in areas near human habitation.

Great horned owl size and weight

Great horned owls typically measure between 46 to 53 cm (18 to 25 inches) in length. The great horned owl wingspan is around 99 to 145 cm (39 to 57 inches). Adult great horned owl weight is around 2 to 5 pounds (32 to 80 oz).

Feathers and plumage

great horned owl

Feathers are the most recognizable feature of an owl, and one way that scientists classify owls is by the appearance of their feathers. The great horned owl’s feathers are a dark brown color with tinges of red, gold, and yellow that give it a mottled look. Their flight feathers or those on the wings and tail, can be over two feet long.

They have a tuft of feathers at the back of their head which is called a plumelike down or ear tufts. They have circular disks near their eyes called ear-tufts or horns, which give them a directional hearing. They have specialized feathering on the front edge of their wing known as a leading edge to help in capturing prey and getting stability during flight.

Molting

common misconception about the molting process is that it provides a bird with a new, larger set of feathers. In reality, the molting process is needed to rid an older set of feathers and to give their plumage time to grow back so that they can fly properly.

During molting, the great horned owls grow a new feather coat of downy feathers. The average molting period lasts three to four months and during this time they cannot fly or keep themselves warm.

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In addition, as the new feathers grow in it causes them to experience periods of dizziness and loss of balance which can last up to two weeks. Due to these setbacks in flight, owls may actually avoid migration so they don’t have the risk of becoming sick during migration.

Great horned owl nesting behavior

Great horned owls often nest in trees during late winter or early spring. Cottonwood, beech, pine, juniper, and others are common nesting trees. They usually use nests that were built by another species, but they also use cavities in live trees, dead snags, abandoned buildings, cliff ledges, and man-made or artificial platforms.

Great horned owl diet

The great horned owl diet consists mostly of small mammals, usually rabbits and hares, but they may also take ground squirrels, mice, opossums, and skunks. They seldom take smaller owls and large birds up to the size of hawks, ducks, or turkeys.

They can also eat lizards, snakes, insects, frogs, scorpions, and rarely fish.

Great horned owl sounds and vocal behavior

In order to announce their territories, Great Horned Owls make deep, soft hoots with a stuttering rhythm: hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo. Females and males may call alternately in a breeding pair, with the female’s voice recognizably higher in pitch.

When begging for food, great horned owl babies make piercing screams, and when defending their nests, adults scream. Whistles, barks, shrieks, hisses, coos, and wavering cries are among other sounds that adults make.

Snapping their bills happens when they’re stressed or disturbed, especially great horned owl predators (like humans) approach their young.

Breeding

great horned owl

Most of the time, Great Horned Owls will lay their eggs in the months of February and March. A pair will typically have only one brood (or set of eggs/chicks) a year, though some may re-nest if their eggs fail to hatch.

Female Great Horned Owls normally lay between one and four eggs, most often two. It may take between 1 and 7 days for eggs to be laid (typically 2 days). They are white with a coarse surface, they weigh 50 grams (2 ounces) – just 3.3% of the female’s body weight.

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The female incubates the eggs, and she begins immediately after laying her first egg. Her incubation period will last from 30 to 37 days (the average is 33 days).

Every night, the male will bring her prey he has caught while she is incubating the eggs. Despite rain, shine, or blizzards, the female Great Horned Owl stays on her eggs at all times.

Even in freezing cold, at a temperature of -33 degrees Celsius (-27.4 degrees Fahrenheit), female owls can still incubate and hatch their eggs. Great horned owl babies are fed by both parents.

Great horned owl lifespan

Great horned owls usually live anywhere from 8 to 20 years in the wild but may live longer, up to 30 years, in captivity.

Movements and migration

In order to survive the winter months, great horned owls will migrate south or get as close to the equator as possible. In fact, these raptors migrate one of the longest distances of any bird in North America.

All great horned owls are migratory and make this journey every year regardless of whether or not they live in a region that experiences severe winter weather conditions. By migrating south and flying around the southern hemisphere during fall and spring, these birds can bask in warmer temperatures all year long.

Diseases and threats

These owls can contract a variety of infections and diseases including Salmonella, Giardia, Plasmodium, Cryptosporidium, ticks, fleas, and lice. Non-infectious threats to the great horned owl include collisions with cars and buildings and predation by other animals such as wild cats. These species are also at risk for human disturbance in nesting areas.

Population status

There are currently a large number of these birds throughout the range of their habitat. Approximately 5,300,000 owls are estimated to exist in North and South America. On the IUCN list, they are classified as a species of Least Concern (LC) because they have a stable population.

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Conservation and management

There are many methods in place to help the conservation and management of these amazing creatures. The great horned owl is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill or trap any migratory bird.

There are also efforts to preserve natural habitats in order to protect trees which offer a large nesting area for them and encourage migration of different animals who prey on other types of animals.