Great Horned Owl
Great horned owl Great horned owl ©: Magnus Manske/Wikimedia Commons

Stories in Indiana

Great Horned Owl

This majestic owl is not only wise, but a strong and stealthy bird of prey.

What Makes the Great Horned Owl So Special?

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 in places such as our Big Walnut Nature Preserve.

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.

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?

How Does the Great Horned Owl Raise its Young?

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 owl are not afraid to attack if they feel their family is threatened.

Does the Great Horned Owl Have Any Predators?

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 owl. 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.  

What Does the Great Horned Owl Sound Like?

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.

You Can Help the Great Horned Owl

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The Nature Conservancy protects owl habitat—and habitat for many other species of birds--all throughout Indiana. You can help us help the birds by supporting our conservation efforts.

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