The Great Horned Owl is one of the largest and most well known owls in North America. They’re also one of our favorite species, which is why they’re the topic of this article. So keep reading for 20 cool and interesting facts about Great Horned Owls.
They can be found in a huge range of environments and locations, and can slightly change their coloring and size depending on where they are located. No matter where they are, people recognize their huge yellow eyes and “horns” that jut up from their face. They are also called the “tiger owl” for their barred pattern and fierce hunting, as well as “hoot owl” for their distinctive calls.
Let’s dig into some more Great Horned Owl facts..
20 interesting facts about Great Horned Owls
1. Great Horned Owls are found throughout the eastern hemisphere
They can be found year round throughout all of North America as well as large portions of central and south America. Great horned owls have an amazing ability to adapt to so many diverse environments from deserts to suburbs to frozen northern forests. They have the widest distribution range of any American owl.
2. Great Horned Owls aren’t all the same color
Coloring of the great horned owls changes from region to region, and is related to the average humidity of the area. Owls with the darkest coloring occur in the Pacific Northwest and along the Atlantic side of Canada, while much paler great horned owls occur in such places as the southwestern deserts or subarctic prairies. The palest colored great horned owls, which can almost appear white, are found in subarctic Canada.
3. Great Horned Owls aren’t all the same size
Size of the owls can also vary region to region, with the largest being found in Alaska, while the smallest in Baja California and the Yucatan Peninsula. Adults range in length from 17-25 inches with a wingspan of 3 – 5 feet.
4. Great Horned Owls do not migrate
The majority of great horned owls do not migrate, they are year round residents of their location.
While they don’t migrate, it has be recorded that occasionally owls from Saskatchewan and Alberta Canada will move south in an “irruption” into Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and the Dakotas. It is thought this is brought on by years where there is a lull in the snowshoe hare population, and the owls are moving south to find a more stable food source.
5. Great Horned Owls have a diverse diet
Great horned owls have some of the most diverse diets of any north American owl. In most areas their diet consists of 90% mammals (rabbits, gophers, mice and other rodents) and 10% birds (favorites being coots and other waterfowl such as ducks). They will also less frequently eat insects, reptiles and amphibians.
6. Great Horned Owls do not have horns
One of the signature characteristics of these owls are the “horns” that stick up on either side of their head. These are just tufts of feathers called plumicorns. Many people might mistake them for ears, but the owls ears are on either side of their head underneath their feathers. It is not known what purpose these “horns” serve, but it is believed they can act as visual cues to other owls. They can make them stand straight up, or flatten them down on their head.
7. Great Horned Owls are perch hunters
They do most of their hunting at night, but also can hunt during the day. They like to perch in high trees and watch open areas like meadows, wetlands and forest edges. When food is abundant, they may store several rabbits or gophers in a nest at a time.
8. Great Horned Owls have very large eyes
Even for an owl, great horned owls have large eyes. Proportionally (in terms of eye size to head size), they are some of the largest eyes of any land vertebrate.
Inside their head, great horned owls eyes are shaped like cylinders. This allows them to act like a zoom lens and gives them further distance vision than a round shaped eye. Their color vision is not as good as other birds, but they have excellent night vision.
9. Great Horned Owls have yellow eyes
Great Horned owls have beautiful bright yellow eyes. Baby great horned owls may have gray or yellowish hazel eyes for the first 2-3 weeks after hatching, which turn to full bright yellow by day 30.
10. Great Horned Owls can rotate their head really far
They have a wide, binocular field of view, but cannot move their eyes to look to the side. If they want to see to the side, they must move their whole head. Great Horned Owls can rotate their head 270 degrees.
11. Great Horned Owls are famous for their hoots
In movies and television, owl hoots used in nighttime sequences are often those of the great horned owl.
Even though females have a larger body size, the male has a larger voice box. This allows his hoots to be deeper in pitch. You may hear a pair calling together, a “duet”. The lower pitched call will be male while the slightly higher pitch is the female. They can also make a wide variety of noises from “barking” to “screeching”.
12. Great Horned Owls don’t drink
Great horned owls almost never drink water. They obtain all the water their body needs from the food they eat.
13. Great Horned Owls don’t have many predators
Adult owls do not have much to worry about in terms of predators. They are fierce and have the ability to prey on other large predator birds such as ospreys and peregrine falcons. The biggest threat is to their eggs and young.
Eggs in the nest can be raided by crows, ravens and raccoons. Young owls can fall prey to coyotes, foxes and bobcats or be snatched from the nest by eagles and large hawks. When the mother owl sees a potential threat close to the nest, she will spread out her wings and puff out all her feathers to display herself as large as possible, letting the intruder know it would be a big mistake t0 get in a fight with her!
14. Great Horned Owls are territorial
Great horned owls are highly territorial. A breeding pair can establish a territory and keep it over a long period of time, more than just one breeding season. The owls hoot vigorously to tell others what area they have claimed and when to back off.
15. Great Horned Owls may mate for life
While there is not much data, it appears great horned owls mate for several years at least, and perhaps for life. Although it has recently been shown a male may mate with more than one female at the same time. Records indicate they can live upwards of 28 years, but their average lifespan is about 13 years.
16. Great Horned Owls start their breeding season very early
They may be some of the earliest breeding birds in North America, courting from October to December and laying eggs around February to April. (This can vary by location) It is thought this winter time period gives them an advantage because of the long night hours. More time to hunt, less daylight hours to worry about predator birds snooping around the nest.
17. Great Horned Owls don’t build their own nests
They most often nest in trees and use a nest that was made by another bird or animal such as hawks, ravens, herons or squirrels. They will sometimes reinforce the nest with extra bark, leaves, twigs or feathers. In the deserts they may sometimes use old woodpecker cavities in large cacti.
18. Great Horned Owls have super strong talons
Their talons are so strong it takes 28 pounds of force to open them. This grip won’t allow any prey to escape, and is often used to crush their spine.
19. Great Horned Owls will use nestboxes
Great horned owls will use nest boxes if they are of the appropriate size. Put them up in the fall, before breeding season. Great horned owls usually only have one clutch of eggs per year, and lay 1-3 eggs at a time. The eggs take about 30-40 days to incubate.
20. Great Horned Owls produce “pellets”
These owls do not have the ability to store food in a crop and digest it later. Their gizzard allows them to break down and absorb the proteins, fats and liquids they need, while leaving the harder to digest material. The remains (bones, feathers, fur) are compressed into a dry pellet that the owl can regurgitate. Scientists often use these pellets to catalogue what the owls have been eating as they can ID the prey based on the skeletal remains.