Illustration of great horned owl

Illustration by Donald L. Malick


Map: Great horned owl range


Many birders first meet this formidable owl in late winter by finding a female sitting in a large stick nest in a leafless tree. Others are introduced to it as a hulking, eared shape atop a power pole at dusk—perhaps a male bending nearly horizontally as it sings. Primarily a nocturnal perch hunter, the great horned owl is a fierce predator that takes a wide variety of prey, but most commonly mammals, up to the size of a large hare. It favors disused tree nests of other large species, such as the red-tailed hawk, for nesting but also uses cavities in trees or cliffs, deserted buildings, and artificial platforms. It breeds early, with first eggs laid by January in Ohio, later farther north. Young climb onto nearby branches at 6 to 7 weeks and fly well from approximately 10 weeks. It often spends its daylight hours dozing in a tree, where the raucous cawing of a chorus of crows may lead one to the bird. Polytypic (approx. 12 ssp.; 7 in North America). Length 22" (56 cm); wingspan 54" (137 cm).

Identification In flight, wings are broad and long, pointed toward the tip; ear tufts are usually flattened and the head is tucked in, producing a blunt profile. Flight is direct; wingbeats are stiff, steady, and mostly below the horizontal. Adult: a very powerful, bulky owl with a broad body. Females larger than males and generally darker. Large head, stout ear tufts, and staring yellow eyes create a catlike appearance. Broad facial disk rimmed with black; whitish superciliary “eyebrows.” White foreneck often conspicuous and ruff-like, especially when vocalizing. Upper chest coarsely mottled; rest of the underparts crossbarred. Gray bill; densely feathered legs and toes. Plumage and size vary geographically. Juvenile: downy plumage grayish to buff, with dusky barring. By about October, young birds acquire a complete set of flight feathers and tail feathers that differ in pattern, shape, and wear from those of adults: they have broader and more numerous crossbars, wings with uniformly fresh-looking rather than variably worn flight feathers, and tail feathers tapered rather than blunt ended.

Geographic Variation In general, birds of the eastern subspecies (including nominate) are medium sized and brownish, with medium pale feet. Birds of the Pacific coast subspecies are small and dark, with dusky feet. Birds of the interior western subspecies are large and variably pale, with whitish feet. The palest subspecies, subarcticus, is resident across the far north-central portion of the range and has wandered southeast in winter as far as New Jersey.

Similar Species The long-eared owl is smaller and more slender and weighs much less; it has a dark vertical stripe through its eye and longer, more closely set ear tufts; it also lacks the white throat. Its flight is floppier, and its voice is different. All other large North American owls lack ear tufts. Female and young snowy owls somewhat resemble subarcticus, but they have a white face and lack ear tufts.

Voice Song: territorial song is a series of 3–8 loud, deep hoots in a rhythmic series; the second and third hoots are often short and rapid: commonly hoo hoo-hoo hoooo hoo; often longer, hoo huhuhoo hooooo hoo. Mostly heard near dusk and dawn. Male territorial singing begins about November. Duetting commonly begins 1–2 months before the first egg is laid. Female’s voice is higher pitched, closer to a mourning dove’s.

Status and Distribution Common and widespread. Year-round: Resident, sedentary, and territorial within the varied habitats of its breeding range, from forest to city to open desert. Irruptions from northern regions can occur in winter (especially in response to population crashes of snowshoe hares).

Population Robust and reasonably stable within limits of annual fluctuations related to prey availability.

—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006

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