Owls are fascinating creatures with their large eyes, sharp talons, and silent flight. While there are over 200 species of owls found around the world, some of the most impressive are also the largest. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at 8 of the largest owls, from the powerful eagle-owl of Eurasia to the majestic great horned owl of the Americas. Join us as we explore the world of these magnificent birds and learn more about their unique adaptations and behaviors.
8 of the Largest Owls
Let’s dive in to 8 of the largest owl species found around the globe.
1. Blakiston’s Fish Owl
Scientific name: Ketupa blakistoni
Let’s start with the largest owl species living today, Blakiston’s Fish Owl. They are named after the English naturalist Thomas Blakiston who collected the first specimen in Japan in the late 1800’s. These large owls can have a wingspan of up to 6.6 feet and a weight of up to 10 pounds. This majestic bird is found in the far eastern regions of Russia, China, Japan, and Korea, where it inhabits the dense forests near rivers and streams.
Blakiston’s fish owl is a highly specialized predator that feeds almost exclusively on fish such as catfish, trout, pike and salmon. But depending on what is abundant in their area, their diet can vary by season to include frogs, lamprey, crayfish, crabs, martens, rodents, hares, bats and other small rodents. These owls typically hunt by either wading through shallow water or perching on the bank to watch the water for movement. Their talons can be up to 2.5 inches long, which allows them to catch and hold onto fish with ease.
It is believed they can capture fish up to three times their own weight and pull them ashore. Since fish are so integral to their diet, they need to live near lakes, rivers and springs that have areas of fast enough or warm enough water to not completely freeze in the winter. Plus, large, old trees for nesting sites. They prefer to nest inside tree cavities high up, which have to be large enough to accommodate a full sized adult and up to three young.
At their full adult size, they don’t have many predators. However because they spend so much of their time on the ground on riverbanks rather than up in trees, larger mammals may tend to find them more easily than other owl species. However they face many threats such as habitat loss, hunters, lead poisoning and more. Currently there are estimated to be about 1500 in the wild and they are listed as an endangered species.
2. Eurasian Eagle-Owl
Scientific name: Bubo bubo
The Eurasian eagle owl is one of the largest owl species in the world, with a wingspan of up to 6.2 feet and a weight of up to 10 pounds. They have distinctive ear tufts on their head, bright orange eyes, and mottled brown plumage with barred wings and a tail that help them blend into their surroundings.
Eurasian eagle owls are found across a wide range of habitats in Europe and Asia. They are one of the most widely distributed owl species in the world. In Europe, Eurasian eagle owls are found in countries such as Spain, France, Germany, and Russia. In Asia, they are found in countries such as China, Japan, and India.
Eurasian eagle owls are highly adaptable birds that can live in a variety of habitats, including forests, deserts, and sometimes even urban areas. They are often found in rocky areas, such as cliffs and canyons, and can even be found in mountainous areas such as the Alps, Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau.
Their diet varies depending on their location and the availability of food, but typically includes small mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. In Europe, their diet consists mainly of rodents such as voles, mice, and rats, as well as rabbits, hares, and other small mammals. In Asia, they may also feed on larger prey such as deer, foxes, and wild boar. Even other birds, smaller owls, snakes and lizards may be included on the menu.
During courtship, the male and female perform a duet. The male advertises potential breeding sites by scratching a shallow depression at the site and making staccato notes and clucking sounds. These birds prefer to nest in sheltered cliff ledges, crevices between rocks, and cave entrances in cliffs. They may also use abandoned nests of other large birds or nest on the ground between rocks, under fallen trees, under a bush, or at the base of a tree trunk. The female selects one of several potential sites offered by the male, which is often used again in subsequent years. Eurasian eagle owls often pair for life and are territorial, although the territories of neighboring pairs may overlap partly.
3. Great Grey Owl
Great gray owls are found in the northern hemisphere, primarily in the boreal forests of North America and Eurasia. In North America, they are predominately found in Alaska, Canada, and the western United States, including parts of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. In Eurasia, they are found in Scandinavia, Russia, and parts of northern Europe and Asia.
They are the largest owl species found in North America, and while they don’t weigh as much as the some of the large owls on this list, they make up for that in height. With an average body length of 24 to 33 inches, they are considered the tallest owl species in the world.
They have a distinctive large round head, round gray facial disk and yellow eyes. A white strip of feathers with black in the middle makes a “bow tie” along their neck, and their plumage is mottled shades of gray, grayish-brown and white.
Great gray owls are adapted to living areas with very cold winters and heavy snowfall. They can be found in dense evergreen forests of the north, and hunt voles, gophers, chipmunks and other small mammals in meadows and clearings. In the U.S. they like pine and fir forests close to montane meadows.
Great gray owls don’t build their own nests. They will reuse an old raven or raptor nest, the top of a broken tree, or even human made platforms. Their hearing is so precise they can hunt just by sound, and their powerful talons can break through hard packed snow to grab animals beneath.
4. Snowy Owl
Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
Snowy owls are an easily recognized species with their bright white plumage and yellow eyes. With a wingspan of up to 5 feet and a weight of up to 6 pounds, they are larger than the more common great horned owl. Snowy owls have thick, fluffy feathers that cover their entire body, including their legs and feet. While their face remains pure white, they often have dark spotting along the top of their head, back, wings, tail and belly. Females tend to be more spotted than males.
Snowy owls are found in the northern hemisphere, primarily in the Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia. In North America, snowy owls are found in Alaska, Canada, and parts of the northern United States. In Eurasia, they are found in Scandinavia, Russia, and other northern regions.
During the winter months, snowy owls often migrate southward in search of food, with some individuals traveling as far south as the United States and even Mexico. The amount of Snowy owls and location in the U.S. can vary quite a bit year to year. However, they typically return to their breeding grounds in the Arctic in the spring, where they mate and raise their young.
These owls are adapted to living in cold, snowy environments, and are often found in areas with open tundra, rocky outcrops, and coastal regions. They are skilled hunters that feed primarily on lemmings and other small rodents, but may also take birds and other prey when available. Snowy owls are able to swoop down feet first and snatch rodents they hear tunneling beneath several inches of snow.
Unlike most other owls, they are active during the day. They prefer wide-open spaces for hunting, like fields and beaches. Look for them on the ground on snowy beaches, or perched out in the open.
5. Great Horned Owl
Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
Great horned owls are one of the most common and recognizable owls in the Americas due to their large size, yellow eyes and “horns” which are tufts of feathers that stick up on either side of their head. Their plumage can vary in color but most are either a cool or warm brown. These large owls have a wingspan up to 5 feet and weigh around 5 pounts.
Great horned owls are found throughout North and South America, from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America. They are one of the most widely distributed owl species in the world and are found in a variety of habitats, from forests and deserts to grasslands and wetlands.
In North America, great horned owls are found in every state and province, as well as in Mexico and Central America. In South America, they are found in countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Peru.
Great horned owls are highly adaptable birds that can live in a variety of environments, including forests, deserts, swamps and even urban areas. They are often found in areas with tall trees or other structures that provide roosting and nesting sites, as well as areas with abundant prey such as rodents, rabbits, skunks, birds and other small mammals.
Their hoot is what most people think of when they think of the sound owls make, and is often used in TV and movies. They also have a variety of other vocalizations, including screeches, hisses, and clucks.
Great horned owls are monogamous and typically mate for life. Nests are often built of sticks, in a large, sturdy tree, often using the abandoned nest of another bird species such as a hawk or crow. They may also nest on cliffs, rocky outcrops, or in other elevated locations that provide protection from predators. Eggs are laid in late winter or early spring, with the female incubating the eggs while the male hunts for food. The chicks hatch after about a month, and are cared for by both parents.
6. Verreaux’s Eagle Owl
Scientific name: Ketupa lacteus
Verreaux’s eagle-owl, also known as the milky eagle owl, is the largest owl species in Africa and is widespread across the sub-Saharan region. These heavy-bodied owls have a wingspan of up to 6 feet and a weight of up to 7 pounds. They are also rather tall, about 26 inches in length. These owls have a grayish-brown back with a finely gray barred chest and belly. Their pale face is framed by a black circle, and their huge dark eyes have unique pink fleshy eyelids.
Verreaux’s eagle-owls are primarily nocturnal, hunting for prey during the night and resting during the day. They can be found in a variety of habitats, from forests and savannas to rocky outcrops and cliffs. They are skilled hunters that feed on a variety of prey, including small mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects.
This owl is considered to have the deepest call of any bird species. Males deep gwok-gwok is sometimes describes as sounding more like a growing leopard than a bird. When it’s extremely hot, they may bathe during the day in shallow water but drink after dark.
A pair of Verreaux’s can defend a very large territory, up to 17,000 acres.
7. Powerful Owl
Scientific name: Ninox strenua
Moving to the land down-under, the Powerful Owl is the largest owl in Australia. They can grow to be up to 26 inches long, weigh 3 – 5 pounds and have a wingspan of 3.6 – 4.4 inches. These brown and white owls have a heavily barred back, large yellow eyes, light underparts with heavy brown chevron-shaped marking and bare yellow feet.
They are found along coastal areas of eastern Australia and specialize in hunting arboreal (tree-dwelling) mammals. These primarily nocturnal owls are considered a top predator within their range. Small to medium sized marsupials like gliders, possums and even smaller koalas make up about 75% of their diet. However they also eat flying foxes, rats, hares and birds.
Mating for life, a pair of owls will defend and maintain their territory year-round. Males prepare the nest and will bring food to the mother and young. Juvenile birds will stay with their parents for several months after leaving the nest, and may stay in their parents territory for a year.
8. Barred Owl
Scientific name: Strix varia
The beautiful brown and white striped barred owl is found mainly in the eastern United States and Canada, although there are some that have a range in the Pacific northwest. There are several subspecies which can vary slightly in coloration and size, but their average wingspan is 3.25 – 3.6 feet. Barred Owls are slightly smaller than the Great Horned Owl, but larger than another familiar North American species, the Barn Owl.
Barred owls have a brown back mottled with white, and a white belly with long vertical brown bars. They have a rounded head without ear tufts, a gray face with large black eyes and a small yellow beak. Barred owls prefer mixed and mature trees near water, especially if there are large tracks of unbroken forest.
You may spot them on a hike roosting in trees during the day. They are mainly nocturnal but can also be active in the morning and evening. Often they will sit quietly on a perch, swiveling their head around to listen for prey. Their diet includes small mammals, birds, rodents, amphibians, reptiles and even fish. They may store prey in a nest or the crook of a tree for short periods.
Their loud and unique hooting call is described as 8-9 notes that sound like “who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-allllll?”. During courtship a mated pair will perform a duet of all sorts of hoots, honks, caws and gurgles.