Great horned owl
Great horned owl Great horned owl © Magnus Manske/Wikimedia Commons

Stories in Indiana

Great Horned Owl

Journey with Nature

The Great Horned Owl is not only wise, but a strong and stealthy bird of prey.

A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw, the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard
Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?

The Great Horned Owl, the most powerful of the common owls, is a stunning creature. Its big, yellow eyes are often compared to those of a cat, and are amplified by an orange facial disk outlined in black. The coloring of its body – hues of browns and grays with black bar markings – allow its white throat to show prominently. Distinguished by its large size (its wingspan is 4 - 5 feet from tip to tip) and its feather tufts resembling horns (and often mistaken for its ears), it isn’t hard to see why this grand bird stands out from the rest.

Owls are mostly nocturnal creatures that can, at times, be spotted in the late afternoon or early morning.  Like most owls, the Great Horned has keen hearing and sharp vision in low light, both adaptations for hunting at night. An owl can not only see what is right in front of it, but can turn its head over halfway around to see what is behind it.  Its hooked beak does not interfere with its binocular vision, which helps determine the distance of its prey.

Owls also catch their prey by using their sense of hearing. Their large ears are covered by special feathers and are located behind the facial dish feathers. These feathers allow the owl to hear even the smallest sound (like a mouse squeaking) up to 900 feet away. 

The Great Horned Owl is a fierce hunter that prefers the sit-and-wait approach. Watching from a perch above, the owl will quietly swoop down on passing prey and seize its meal. The talons of this owl can extend to a size of 4x8 inches and can close down on its prey with the force of almost thirty pounds. Its wing feathers are comb-like with a soft fringe that helps reduces the sound of air rushing through them; as such the Great Horned Owl is more apt to glide than flap its wings. Such a maneuver makes it almost impossible for prey to hear it advance.

Great Horned owls start nesting in January, raising their families in the dead of winter. The female will incubate the eggs while her mate brings her food. Within a month, up to five eggs will hatch and the owlets will be closely guarded by their parents. Six weeks after hatching, the owlets will leave the nest and walk around. In another three weeks, the young owls will already have learned to fly. The parents will continue to feed and care for their offspring for several months, often as late as October. It is wise to stay away from young owls and their nests as Great Horned Owls are not afraid to attack if they feel their family is threatened.

There aren't many birds or mammals that prey on the Great Horned Owl, but it does have its threats. Like most species, man plays a role in threatening the population of Great Horned owls. Loss of habitat through urban sprawl decreases the owl’s nesting and hunting territories. Certain agricultural practices such as the use of insecticides and pesticides can harm owls that feed on the insects and rodents, reducing their natural food supply. We do our part to protect these owls by purchasing and conserving land. In doing so, we provide a stable habitat for them for generations to come. You can do your part to preserve their home by supporting our efforts to continue to buy land.

Fun and Interesting Facts about the Great Horned Owl
  • The Great Horned Owl is also referred to as a cat owl, hoot owl, big-eared owl, and “the tiger of the sky” because of its aggressive nature and ability to capture prey much larger than itself.
  • Owls are considered symbols of wisdom and good luck in some cultures, but in others, they are feared as a sign of impending death and doom.
  • Many people believe that an owl can turn its head all away around, but this is not true. Owls have fourteen neck vertebrates that allow them to move their head at 270 degrees, left to right.
  • The color of these birds varies with the area in which they are found. Canadian and Pacific Northwest Great Horned owls are very dark, while the birds found in arid regions are usually very sandy in color. In the Arctic they are practically white.
  • If a Great Horned owl was the same size as a human, its eyes would be as big as oranges.
  • Great Horned owls take life-long mates. They won’t build a nest together, but will raise their young in the abandoned nests of other birds such as hawks, eagles and crows.
  • Flocks of American crows are known to harass the Great Horned Owl, pestering it for hours or until the owl leaves. The crow's hostility is well-earned as the owl is a major predator to their nestlings and adults. Other small bird species, such as swallows, are also known for this behavior.
  • Great Horned owls are one of the only animals that eat skunks. Yum! 
"Whooo hoo!"

The call of the Great Horned owl is a classic sound of the wild and can be heard from miles away. The sounds made by the owl vary with its mood and temperament. When calling for its mate, it makes a "who hoo, who hoo" sound. If aggravated, the owl will "clack" with its beak. Young owls will "shriek" or scream for attention.

Great Horned Owl Quick Facts
  • Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
  • Height: 1.5 – 2 feet
  • Wing span: 4 - 5 feet
  • Tail length: 7 – 10 inches
  • Weight: (average) male: 3 lbs; female: 4 lbs
  • Characteristics: big, yellow eyes; orange facial disk with black outline; long tufts of hair, white throat; dark barring on body
  • Differences in sexes: plumages is the same but females are larger in size
  • Habitat: adapted to various environments and climates; dense woodlands, canyons, deserts, and plains to name a few
  • Range: found all over North America, Central America, and in certain regions of South America
  • Diet: small to medium sized mammals (foxes, rabbits, weasels, rodents, etc), amphibians, birds, fish and reptiles
  • Reproduction: breeding season occurs between January – February; average 2-3 eggs, up to 5 per season
  • Conservation status: vigorous population; protected as a migratory bird