Great Horned Owl

Bubo virginianus

Great Horned Owl
Tom Koerner/USFWS/Flickr/CC by 2.0

The most widespread North American owl and the owl with the widest habitat range in the world, the great horned owl is well known to birders and non-birders alike. Large and aggressive, this member of the Strigidae bird family is one of the most fearsome raptors. Discover more great horned owl facts and learn even more about what makes these owls so intimidating and fascinating.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
  • Common Name: Great Horned Owl, Horn Owl, Flying Tiger
  • Lifespan: 13-15 years
  • Size: 22 inches
  • Weight: 3-3.5 pounds
  • Wingspan: 50 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Great Horned Owl Identification

The great horned owl is a large, stocky bird, but like all owls, it is heavily camouflaged. Recognizing its key features and field marks can help birders properly identify this owl, despite the fact that great horned owls in different ranges can be different colors. One of the easiest traits to note is the large ear tufts, and while they aren't actually ears at all, they can help birders quickly recognize this type of owl. Great horned owls aren't the only owls with these tufts, however, so it is important to note other characteristics as well.

Great horned owl genders are similar, though females are notably larger than males. The upperparts are finely mottled brownish-gray with checkered barring on the wings, and the slightly lighter underparts show finer horizontal barring. The oval facial disk ranges from gray to orange-rust and is outlined with a thin black border. White around the bill extends onto the chin and throat. The eyes are bright yellow with dark pupils.

Juvenile great horned owls at first look like fluffy grey-white balls with short, triangular ears and large eyes. The birds quickly outgrow their soft down, however, and will first develop more distinctive feathers and coloring on the wings and facial disk. Within a few weeks, the young birds will look just like adults.

The great horned owl has the classic "hoot" call with a deep, strong pitch. The hooting song lasts 3-8 syllables that increase in tempo in the center of the call. Male and female birds may sing together, and females use a slightly higher pitch. Young great horned owls use raspy barks and whines to get attention.

Regional Differences

Plumage color varies geographically with these widespread owls. Great horned owls in Arctic tundra regions, for example, are much lighter than the darker birds found in thick forests. Birds in deserts also tend to be lighter in color or may show more tan that blends with their surroundings.

Markings, diet, behavior, and other traits for great horned owls are similar no matter where the birds are seen.

Great Horned Owl Habitat and Distribution

Great horned owls can be found in all habitats where suitable game is available, from open deserts to thick woods to swampy marshes to isolated tundras. These birds can be found year-round throughout North America except in the most extreme Arctic regions, and they are almost as widespread in South America, though not typically seen in the deepest tropical rainforests.

Migration Pattern

Though they occasionally wander for hunting, particularly in winter when prey may be scarce, great horned owls do not regularly migrate.

Behavior

The great horned owl is fearless and aggressive, and will frequently attack prey larger and heavier than itself, including cats, skunks, and porcupines. If a nesting area is threatened, these birds will even attack large dogs and other predators, including humans. They are primarily nocturnal birds but may be active in twilight or early morning hours, particularly when there are hungry owlets to feed.

Diet and Feeding

These owls are excellent hunters and take a wide variety of prey, including small to medium-sized mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, depending on what is available in their range. As aggressive hunters, they may even attack other raptors, such as ospreys and peregrine falcons, especially chicks in the nest. Like all birds of prey, great horned owls are strictly carnivorous. These owls hunt from perches, where they silently watch and listen for prey before taking flight and striking.

Nesting

Great horned owls are monogamous birds that begin their nesting season in the winter, often laying eggs in January or February. They typically use a nest that was originally built by a different raptor, and stick nests are preferred.

Eggs and Young

The female parent will incubate the white, spherical eggs for 30-35 days, and both parents will care for the baby owlets for an additional 35-45 days. Only one brood, typically with 1-5 eggs, is raised annually.

Great Horned Owl Conservation

Because of their widespread range and adaptability to different habitats and food sources, great horned owls are not considered threatened or endangered. They are at risk, however, from contaminated prey where pesticides are not used appropriately, and fences and other collision hazards also threaten great horned owls. Understanding and minimizing these risks are necessary to protect great horned owls and other raptors.

Tips for Backyard Birders

Birders who want to attract a great horned owl should provide large trees and protected snags for roosting or nesting, and avoid using pest control methods that would eliminate food sources such as rodents or rabbits. In many cases, however, great horned owls are seen as potentially dangerous and unwelcome guests either to pets or backyard birds. Many pet owners and birders take steps to protect their pets from the owls rather than encourage these owls to stay nearby.

How to Find This Bird

Great horned owls are very loyal to their favorite perches, roosts, and feeding spots, and if they are known to be in an area they are likely to return to the same spots frequently. This allows birders to get great sightings of these impressive owls. Otherwise, watch for great horned owls to perch close to the trunks of large trees, often at the edges of fields where they can seek out prey more easily. When young owls are first leaving the nest and learning to fly they may be more active during the day and are more likely to be seen on the ground, but they should not be disturbed. The parent birds are likely nearby and can be very protective of their offspring.

Explore More Species in This Family

The Strigidae bird family includes all the true owls other than barn owls, and there are many amazing species of owls birders can appreciate. When learning about great horned owls, also consider its close cousins, such as:

Don't forget to check out different amazing owl trivia, as well as check out all our wild bird profiles to learn more about your favorite species.